Research Update: What is the Cloud and Why Should My Arts Organization Use It?

 Visualization of the cloud by Sam Johnston

Visualization of the cloud by Sam Johnston

According to a recent report from the Consumer Electronics Association, a stunning 96% of U.S. adults use cloud services. However 36% of those surveyed couldn’t define the cloud, and only 19% said they “know a lot about the cloud.” Cloud computing has become quietly ubiquitous, and almost everyone has daily interaction with cloud services, even if they don’t know it, in the form of social networks, webmail, and content providers such as Netflix and iTunes.

What many people don't realize is that the cloud is a very general term, describing a wide range of ways the Internet has transformed computing power from a product to a service. To understand how arts organizations might benefit from this shift in the digital landscape, it’s helpful to break the cloud down into a few different types of services.  The International Journal of Computer Science’s January 2012 issue provides three broad categories:

  • Infrastructure as a service, also known as IaaS. Scalable servers, such as those provided by Amazon’s EC2 service fall into this category, as do numerous other providers. Compared to a traditional model, where an organization would pay to maintain their own servers and appropriate IT staff, this model offers the flexibility of paying for only the capacity you need. Some artists have even used IaaS for on-demand supercomputing.
  • Platform as a Service, or PaaS. Essentially an online development platform, allowing for the creation and distribution of apps, removing the need to maintain the onsite capacity to manage them. Salesforce.com has a very clear breakdown of their model, highlighting possible applications both for businesses and their customers.
  • Software as a Service, or SaaS. This is by far the broadest and most familiar category to most cloud users. Online CRM systems such as Salesforce.com fall into this category, as do a wide range of ticketing software solutions such as Brown Paper Tickets and Ovationtix, social media, webmail, and online storage services like Dropbox or Google Drive.

When organizations ask whether they should move to the cloud, more often than not they already work in the cloud in some capacity. SaaS is by far the most common mode, but branching out into IaaS has the potential to significantly reduce the costs associated with maintaining an onsite server and backup infrastructure. Competitively priced cloud based solutions offering superior capacity and redundancy now abound, and best of all, cloud data is accessible anywhere you have internet access. The bigger questions are what specific implementations and products are most advantageous for arts organizations, and what best practices are to ensure cloud services are used in a manner that is both secure and affordable.

Over the next several months I will attempt to tackle these questions, providing suggestions for services and strategies applicable specifically to nonprofit arts providers. What questions do you have about the cloud? Has your organization taken any novel steps to move to a cloud-based model? Let me know either in the comments below or by emailing editor@amt-lab.org.