Research Update: Is IaaS Right for Everyone?

Amazon's AWS data center - Amazon Web Services

Amazon's AWS data center - Amazon Web Services

Last month I gave a general overview of the wide variety of services that fall under the umbrella of “the cloud.” Since then I've focused on Infrastructure as a Service, or IaaS, one of the three major cloud subcategories and a topic that can be rather intimidating, due to the plethora of technical specifications providers use to distinguish themselves from the competition.  Looming larger than the question of which specific provider to use—a topic well-covered by many expert reviewers—is the question of whether undertaking a transition from a more traditional server infrastructure to an IaaS model is a good idea for arts organizations, especially when it comes to small organizations with limited resources. Brian Whalley provides a nice introduction to the pros and cons of IaaS, but arts organizations carry with them unique technological challenges and needs which are not entirely addressed by generalized writing targeted towards a more traditional business audience. With that in mind, here are a couple factors considered core cloud advantages, approached from a nonprofit arts context.


Consider your organization’s website elements, such as online ticket sales, virtual exhibits, educational documents, programming, or group sales submission forms. Are they hosted locally? Do they receive highly variable amounts of traffic? If so, the scalability of IaaS might offer some distinct advantages. Under the IaaS model, an organization’s servers exist not in its server closet, but virtually, as a small piece of your chosen provider’s huge data center. This makes expansion of computing power simple, ensuring that your service never buckles under an increased, or even unexpected, server load. Because these virtual servers are stored redundantly, even a catastrophic hardware failure is typically recoverable. Additionally, IaaS allows for utility computing, meaning you only pay for the computing power you use. All of these benefits exist in sharp contrast to the fixed costs of traditional server infrastructure, which necessitates costly upgrades every 3-5 years, nightly backups, and on-site IT expertise.


Cost is another major factor when considering a transition to the cloud. For-profit businesses increasingly find that they are able to save money with the IaaS pay-for-usage model, but for nonprofits, which often have access to donated or low cost hardware, the potential savings of IaaS are not as clear. Compared to the tech-heavy companies which have flocked to cloud computing, nonprofit arts organizations’ computing needs are often comparatively light. As a result, donated or discounted hardware may provide more than enough power at a lower cost, with the caveat that it can’t match the cloud promises of redundancy and easy expansion.

However, because IaaS providers typically work within the aforementioned utility computer model, monthly costs can vary widely and require a keen idea of your organization’s computing consumption habits, even when using tools like Amazon’s price calculator. While arts organizations are unlikely to be data hogs, there are also the up-front costs of migrating and acclimating to the new system to consider. This isn't to say that IaaS doesn't offer other significant advantages, but for many organizations who have access to discounted hardware and consider cost to be a primary concern, IaaS is likely not the most affordable infrastructure solution.

While it’s true that cloud servers offer distinct advantages when it comes to reliability and scalability, the up front and monthly costs of transitioning to IaaS may be more than what a frugal non-profit organization spends by only occasionally upgrading their servers. Indeed, very small organizations may be able to forego a centralized server entirely. It’s easy to imagine a not too distant future where low costs, 100% up-time, and ease of use make IaaS a no-brainer for organizations of any size, but we aren't there quite yet.

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