Office 365: Non-Profit Moves to Cloud for Global Relief

If you're an emergency response agency providing relief after a natural disaster and you can't communicate and share resources, you're in for a disaster of your own.

With field offices working with regional offices and busy relief workers scrambling to create order in hostile third world environments, collaboration and unified communication tools are no longer optional. They are essential.

NetHope, a 10-year-old non-profit consortium of IT leaders that supports 33 of the world's largest humanitarian agencies in 180 countries, knows the value of keeping far-flung workers on the same page. NetHope's member organizations, including Oxfam, Save the Children, World Vision and Habitat for Humanity, have been on the ground for the 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia, the earthquake in Japan and the flooding in Pakistan, to name a few. Member organizations also spend much of their time in Haiti and East Africa.

The core team at NetHope is comprised of 30 people who work full or part time. All program leads are full time; all are over 45 years old and many have worked in the private sector at companies like Microsoft, Cisco and Accenture.

NetHope provides everything from a geek squad that restores connectivity in the aftermath of a disaster to IT mentoring programs for local unemployed youths. It also partners with private sector tech vendors such as Cisco, Microsoft, Intel, HP and Accenture to procure technologies.

The foundation has been using Microsoft Sharepoint for five years as its intranet and as a document repository. With project teams working all over the world in different time zones it would be impossible to function without a unifying tool, says NetHope Global Program Director Frank Schott.

"Any member of our organizations can log into Sharepoint and get information," says Schott, "whether it's maps or schedules, documents about disease outbreak or an earthquake, proposals to buy new software, or documents from a three-year-old project, it's accessible in Sharepoint."

This year, NetHope switched gears slightly and migrated to Office 365, Microsoft's cloud service that includes online versions of Exchange, SharePoint and Lync. The foundation's use of Sharepoint won't change much, but having it packaged with Exchange, Lync and Office as a cloud service will be a boon for productivity, says Schott.

Why go to the cloud? A big reason for Schott is to free up IT staffers to do more mission critical tasks instead of babysitting servers.

"One of our member organizations, World Vision, has programs in 80 countries. They have eight offices in Kenya. Before the cloud, if the IT director wanted email he would need a server in each office, and the IT overhead and staff that goes with that," says Schott. "The ability to have those apps and data stored and maintained in an air conditioned data center managed by engineers 24/7 is a huge opportunity."

When you present this cloud option to the CIOs of these humanitarian agencies, says Schott, they soon realize just how many servers they have in various locations, and that the servers have old code on them and are maybe prone to viruses.

"And here comes a cloud service that for a monthly fee, will use the latest software to protect and maintain things, and it works 99.9 percent of the time. That's an interesting value proposition."

It's natural for any CIO to be nervous about losing a feeling of control when moving to the cloud, Schott admits, but says that most will get over it once they see the benefits.

"That's understandable. But you don't give up all the control full stop in one day - you make a slow transition."

NetHope's member organizations are migrating to the cloud in stages with some maintaining a Sharepoint server even after implementing Office 365.

As for the use of Lync, adoption of the UC platform has come in fits and starts. But despite the Lync learning curve, Schott predicts that video conferencing will soon become the standard way for NetHope workers in regional offices to communicate. It will call for investment in more broadband and connectivity as "you're going to be doing more over the pipe" but ultimately it will be a real money saver, Schott says.

"One of our member organizations has a big field office in Nairobi, Kenya that serves 10 offices in the region," he says. "Someone from that office would have to drive out to the regional offices for face-to-face meetings, racking up fuel costs and time. A paid security staffer would also have to escort him. That's the business case for video conferencing."

For those on the fence about migrating to a cloud service for email, collaboration tools and unified communications, Schott says that as such services gain the trust of CIOs, the value of managing IT infrastructure in-house will start to diminish.

"Do you really think you're going to run servers better than people who do this for a living in a proper data center that have engineers and redundancy? It's hugely doubtful."

Shane O'Neill covers Microsoft, Windows, Operating Systems, Productivity Apps and Online Services for CIO.com. Follow Shane on Twitter @smoneill. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Shane at soneill@cio.com

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