Your Web and Software Infrastructure for Less than $200 a Year
By Stephen Rockwell
Some funders and IT consultants claim that there is still a significant organizational gap when it comes to basic IT infrastructure. Such a story was true in the late nineties and into this decade, but it is a declining issue as a result of the amount of cheap or freely available software for nonprofits.
Much of this free software exists as software as a service on the web. The fact that the software is hosted on a website means that most of the processing for the software is happening on someone else's machine. This extends the life of your old computers since you don't need to upgrade to incorporate new software (unless you've made the mistake of upgrading to Windows VISTA).
Here's a suggested plan for how you can operate your small organization on either free or cheap software.
1. Web browser - $0
Both Internet Explore and Mozilla Firefox are free software as has been the case in the web browser market since the beginning. I put this at the top because the web browser is becoming even more vital to daily operations. As software moves to the Internet the browser can essentially be the only application that you need to use on your computer all day.
2. Office Application Software - $0
No longer are you beholden to the Microsoft monopoly for Office Application software. Really good free alternatives exist.
a. Google Enterprise/Google Docs
Google provides free word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software that is accessible via browser and runs on their site. Files can be saved as Microsoft Word or Excel files, pdfs, and other file formats. The most impressive feature is that you can share your document with other users and work together in the same document in real time.
b. Open Office
Open office is free open source software that runs like Microsoft Office on the desktop. Almost all of the functionality that you would seek in office application software is available in open office. For those not ready to make the jump to web-based office applications, open office is a great option.
3. Website Building and Content Management - $0
A number of new open source content management systems provide scalable, easy to use web building solutions that allow non-technical users to keep their site up to date. Each development community also offers a number of free plug-ins that extend and enrich the functionality of the website.
a. Google Enterprise website - As part of Google's Enterprise package, they offer an easy to use solution for building basic websites.
Drupal is my favorite of the CMS's because of its more sophisticated add-on modules. MCS website runs on drupal.
Joomla is another solid solution for content management. It has many more freely available themes (graphic design templates) than the other communities.
Similar to the other two, though I have not spent much time exploring plone.
4. Website Hosting - $8.00 - $50
a. Google Enterprise - Google Enterprise hosting is free for nonprofits.
b. Cheap host - If you are paying more than $10 month for web hosting, you are paying too much. Some organizations continue to pay much higher rates out of inertia. If you haven't looked at their hosting since your website was set up a number of years ago, its time to look again. Many web hosts have both web server space and bandwith limits. But don't worry, most small organizations will never exceed those limits and if you do, you can always upgrade.
c. Cheap domain name - If you are paying more than $8.00 a year for your domain name, you are again paying too much. Some of the early domain name registrars such as Network Solutions continue to charge $35 annually. Inertia is the only way they get away with it, because there is no product differentiation between a $35 registrar and $8.00 registrar.
5. Email - $0
a. Google Enterprise - Google allows you to use their Gmail product for your corporate email. Get all the functionality of Gmail while maintaining your brand identity.
b. Your new webhost - Most webhosts either include email or have an additional small cost for email with the webhosting account.
6. Other applications -
For almost any other application you can think of, decent open source software exists. In other cases, nonprofit pricing keeps costs very low. Whether it statistical packages or project management software, open source applications exist. The cost will come if you want to integrate those packages into existing software (e.g. getting your website content management system to talk to your project management software).
7. Operating System - $0 - $25
Most nonprofits will still likely use a Microsoft (XP or VISTA) or Apple operating system. That being said, the various Linux open source operating systems do offer a much more user friendly installation process than they used to. If its still too much to switch over your operating environment, a techsoup.org order will get you Microsoft Operating System licensing for $25 a PC.
A final note: Free open source software is contributed by a committed community of developers. If you are using open source software, consider contributing to the organizations that support the software.
Stephen Rockwell, Technology and Strategy Practice Leader at Management Consulting Services in Boston, hosts a blog on technology issues. Contact him at 617-372-9494 ext. 204, or email him at peter@ firstname.lastname@example.org.