No Software – Your Church in the Cloud

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Software As a Service (SAAS)

SAAS is becoming rather commonplace in Corporate America, but has only recently started to enter our world. The idea that your church’s software and data is housed ‘somewhere’ in the Internet cloud may leave some uneasy, but I’d like to make the case that its actually a better place for it to be.

The image on the left is salesforce.com’s brand image.  Salesforce.com was once just another upstart Customer Relationship Management (CRM) vendor like Act! or GoldMine, but they had the gall to think they could take on the big players in the market (i.e. Oracle, PeopleSoft, Siebel, and Microsoft) with this crazy new cloud-based SAAS model.  All other vendors required their customers to implement large server infrastructures and spend time installing and configuring their software.  Salesforce.com had this wild idea of giving the first license away for free and literally minutes later you could be off an running.  Need more licenses?  They’re just a credit card and a click away. Previously large scale CRM software installations often took months for big companies to design and implement and then salesforce.com came around and reduce the time to only a few minutes.  Fast forward to today, and salesforce.com is the leading CRM vendor with the former big vendors now struggling to keep up.

The idea behind a SAAS solution is simple.  The vendor takes responsibility for the server infrastructure, system backups, Internet connectivity, version management, and security of the system.  No more software to install, no more worries about backing up your system, or having your IT person tell you we need a bigger, faster computer.  If you have Internet connectivity, you have access to your software.  What version of the SAAS software are you on?  Well, there’s only one possible answer, the most current.  Upgrades continually happen and are actually out of your control.  All of that responsibility stays with the software vendor.  They’re not providing you a CD and a perpetual license to use their software but rather a time-based license for just the period your using (and paying) for it.  Think Netflix versus buying your DVDs at Walmart.

Perceptions

The concerns often raised with cloud-based solutions are centered around loss of control, security, and data privacy.  However, I’d maintain for the average church with extremely limited IT resources and some with only volunteers, that a SAAS solution offers more control, security, and data privacy.  Providing good backups, disaster recovery, and data privacy are not simple tasks in this day an age and they’re tasks that, quite frankly, many churches aren’t equipped to adequately handle.  The SAAS vendor on the other hand, does this for a living, they have the staff and expertise to handle the job, and they need to because that’s their core business.  Its not core to the church though.

Total Cost of Ownership (TCO)

Choosing between a SAAS solution and a purchased software solution, is decided both on the security items mentioned as well as the financial total cost of ownership (TCO).  SAAS solution’s may appear expensive because they’re paid for on an annual basis, but adding up all the components that comprise a complete system you may find they’re actually cheaper.  Here are the components that go into a comparison between a SAAS solution versus a traditional software solution:

(SAAS annual cost) * X years

versus

(Traditional software purchase price + annual software maintenance + hardware costs + hardware maintenance + people’s time) / X years

Do you upgrade you’re computers every 5 years?  Every 7?  Then you need to factor that cost into the comparison.  Do you have a vendor who supports your systems if they crash?  That cost needs to be built in to the comparison as well.

So is this really affecting churches today?

Yes, absolutely.  Many of your systems may already be in the cloud:

Electronic Donation Systems – Do you have any electronic donation system?  All electronic donation systems are in the cloud.  Because of banking security rules and PCI compliance issues no electronic donation systems are sold as software to be installed.  They’re all web-based and given the payment gateways, payment providers, and merchant banks involved in processing a transaction they’re all effectively cloud-based solutions.

Church Management Systems – Chances are not yet, but wait for it.  The two leading CMS vendors, ParishSoft and ACS, now both offer cloud-based solutions.

Your Church Website – Few churches have their own web servers.  Your church website has probably been in the cloud at a hosting vendor / ISP for years already.

Your Church Bulletin – Yes, even your ol’ church bulletin maybe in the cloud.  My company Liturgical Publications publishes about 3500 church bulletins weekly and makes them available online on our church directory site, Seek And Find.  We host this website through a hosting vendor, rackspace.com.  Rackspace.com is a large vendor with many data centers around the country and I can honestly say I don’t know where the data center is that has my data.  To me the location is irrelevant.  What is relevant is rackspace.com’s technical excellence, their continued reputation of ‘fanatical’ customer service, and their annual SAS-70 audit that confirms for me they’re doing things the right way.

The Real Risks

Like anything, SAAS solutions are not without their risks.  Here’s the two I worry about when looking at SAAS solution.

1.  Pick Your Vendor Wisely – With a SAAS solution, you’re betting on the longevity of the vendor.  If the vendor goes out of business, so does the lights on your SAAS solution.

2.  Do the Math – Think through the Total Cost of Ownership calculation carefully.   Also, watch your vendors.  Vendors moving from a traditional software model to a SAAS model may just try to sneak a price increase in there as well, but in the end if you do your TCO calculations correctly, the price is only an input factor into the value calculation of the overall solution.  Its this value that should drive your software selection.

Moving to the Cloud

As I’ve said before, I love hindsight, I just don’t get it early enough.  In this case, watching corporate america overcome their loss of control and security concerns and move more to the cloud, I know the church will be there as well.  It may take us a few more years, but we’ll get there.

Don’t you think its appropriate that your church be in the clouds?

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Author:Joe Luedtke

Joe Luedtke is the Chief Operating Officer for Liturgical Publications (LPi). Joe specializes in Social Media and Web 2.0 and is currently leading LPi’s efforts to move into the on-line world. Joe works for the world's largest and oldest social network, religion, and believes that this social network could benefit tremendously from the the proper use of Internet technologies.
  • Brad

    Great article, and I couldn’t agree more with the huge benefits for parishes today.  I had set up our parish 2 years ago with Google Apps which allowed for up to 50 users for free at the time.  It’s now down to 10 for the free version, but is often enough for many parishes.  The base system is extremely easy to use, very affordable, can greatly improve collaboration, can reduce a ton of costs, and is packed with features.  I would recommend it as a great starting point for any parish.  

    Resistance was a huge problem and “uneasiness” so we were forced to use it as an “opt in” service.  The cloud is a perfect fit for parishes and those that are not taking advantage of this today need to seriously consider it.  

  • http://coolsolutionsgroup.com Tim

    This is spot on…and we we developed our church facility software in the cloud.  Our http://ministrEspace.com and http://facilitEspace.com software allows churches to be more efficient and effective in managing their facilities without the hassle of server, maintenance agreements and the like.

    Preach it!

  • http://catholicservant.com Craig Berry

    Couple thoughts…

    1. TCO is a huge factor for organizations to consider. If you buy a software application that has to be installed at your physical location you’ll need to a) buy a server b) backup that server c) hire someone to manage that server – not to mention any HVAC needs for large systems. You get the idea.

    2. Security. For any SAAS, a security breach could mean the collapse of their business. They better (and usually do) take it extremely seriously. Again, if you’re hosting your own server, better make sure your tech is installing security patches to the OS, the app, and any firmware upgrades.

    Also, maybe someone just picked up a Wifi router over the weekend and installed it in the workplace – but didn’t enable security features. You’re entire network is a sitting duck for hackers. This happens a lot btw.

    Good stuff Joe. 

  • http://twitter.com/inspiredangela Angela Santana

    Right now I’m exploring CRM/CMS options for our Catholic non-profit. Haven’t found any good solutions yet. Right now we serve 6000+ households, but growing. Tips?

  • http://catholicservant.com Craig Berry

    @twitter-25394272:disqus – I think there are a couple contributors on the site that might represent companies…but a couple I’d look into (if you haven’t already)
    SalesForce – From everything I hear/read, they lead the pack in terms of SAAS and ‘cloud’ options.

    ParishSOFT – OK…they’re not cheap, but this company has so many Church products/services it’s hard to keep track. 

    Blackbaud – They’ve got Raiser’s Edge and CRM products.

    I’d really like to see someone on this site do some decent analysis the ParishSOFT and Blackbaud products.