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Need Dependable, Affordable Help Planning Your Service? Look to “The Cloud.”
By: Tom Metz

You know that staging a successful worship service today means bringing together numerous diverse elements into one, smooth-flowing event. To do this, you often depend on technology.  A dizzying array of digital applications – for a variety of devices – enable you to accomplish crucial tasks like building, searching, and filtering music libraries, synchronizing worship teams, scheduling rehearsals, and much more.

As custom applications and services continue to evolve and are increasingly put to use, computing and data storage needs are growing rapidly. So, it is crucial for church worship leaders to embrace the foundation technologies that drive the planning of today's worship service. Cloud computing is one such technology.

What Is Cloud Computing?
The term cloud computing generally describes computing services delivered over the Internet. The term was derived from the abstract cloud symbol used to indicate the Internet in system flow charts. Simply put, cloud computing is a remote facility providing computing and storage capacity to multiple users — a "community of recipients."

It eliminates the need for your church to maintain a roomful of computer servers and associated gadgets to handle computing and data storage operations. Cloud computing enables a church's data, software and computing to be done securely over a wide-area network, typically the Internet.

In a nutshell, the cloud uses a "co-op" of resources, and gives you the following advantages:

* Pay only for services and storage space you use
* Eliminate any costs and management of your own, on-site infrastructure
* Safeguard important files in remote storage so that computer crashes don't pose risks

A Rocky Beginning
Early on, cloud computing had its share of challenges. As with many other developing technologies, cloud computing experienced growing pains as its popularity swelled. That history simply reminds us to examine every technology decision for its potential rewards and risks before deciding to adopt it. This brief discussion on cloud computing hopefully will aid in your decision-making.

Today, A Dependable Resource for Churches
Cloud computing today has become more stable and secure. It has won the confidence of a growing number IT managers and buyers in organizations, including religious ones. Cloud computing today can provide tremendous benefits without putting valuable assets at risk.

Born in the 1960s, cloud computing has made great strides since then. It offers tremendous benefits to today's churches, whatever their size.

The cloud makes technology tools available to small churches that give them equal footing as the "big guys." It provides access to a more secure, flexible, and scalable computing infrastructure for those with modest budgets. The cloud is the alternative to purchasing everything internally. Also, "hybrid" cloud computing solutions can be easily developed that combine virtual and traditional (on-site) components, so churches can take advantage of the best of both technologies.  

What Can the Cloud Do for You?
Cloud computing allows your church to get software up and running faster, with better manageability, and less maintenance. Cloud computing rapidly adjusts to provide exactly what your church needs.

Cloud computing encompasses technologies ranging from infrastructure components to platforms and software applications. Those applications, collectively called Software as a Service (SaaS), give churches access to software and associated data centrally hosted in the cloud. These services are typically accessed using a Web browser.

Using Software in the Cloud
SaaS has become very popular for delivering business applications. Many specialty or custom applications – such as church management, worship planning tools, and worship presentation software – are coming into their own as SaaS offerings in the cloud. This gives small churches access to tools they otherwise would not be able to afford or manage.

Your church needs to understand the pros and cons of cloud solutions and services if it is to effectively evaluate the rewards and risks of adopting the technology.

Applications in the Cloud – The Pros
* Nearly 100% Reliability – Internet connections have become increasingly more reliable based on consumers use and expectation. 

* Low Monthly Pricing – No physical licenses or CDs to purchase. Pay only for what is used.

* Enterprise-Level Reliability – Data is subjected to scheduled back-ups, maintenance, and redundancies that small organizations cannot usually afford on their own.

* Ease of Implementation – No software, installation, updates, or patches to apply.

* Powerfully Collaborative – Centralized documents can be shared across your church, so all participants can work on the most recent versions.

* Easily Accessible – Software and data can be accessed using any Internet connection.

* Amazingly Flexible – Applications developed for the cloud often are "smart" enough to fit their interfaces to the devices used: desktops, tablets, or smartphones.

Applications in the Cloud – The Cons
* Nearly 100% Reliability – While infrequent, Internet connections can go down, websites can have outages, and sources beyond internal control can cause damage.

For example, Google's Blogger failure and Microsoft Business Productivity Online Service outage in 2011 caused chaos.

Customers have no control over the actions of organizations in close proximity to their data. However, reputable cloud services providers should have processes in place to ensure that all data is protected from cross-customer threats.

* Highly Secure, But – Malicious attempts to steal data are sometimes successful. For example, Visa and MasterCard's 2011 data breach exposed customer info.

* Service-Dependent Accessibility – Cloud applications cannot be used in areas without Internet connectivity.

Applications NOT in the Cloud – The Pros
* One-Time Cost – Purchases can be made in one large payment with no recurring charges.

* Controllability – Data is maintained on the church's computers on premises, putting control of security, updates, patches, and maintenance in church personnel's hands.

Applications NOT in the Cloud – The Cons
* Questionable Reliability – A computer crash brings all activities to a standstill—even if data has been backed up—since it could take significant time and effort to get systems working again.

* Limited Security – Protection against viruses, malware, and intrusion is limited to what the individual church can provide on its own.

* Limited Accessibility – Software must be used on the computer where it is installed, and cannot typically be accessed from outside of the office.

* Lack of Flexibility – Software is not available for use on tablets or smartphones. Separate software would most likely need to be purchased for PCs and MACs.

Making the Decision
Determining what is best for your church doesn't have to be complicated. Answering a few, basic questions can help you make a sound choice. Consider your church's individual needs.

* Does this application need to be available without issue at specific times for specific durations, or can you use it at any time with the same results? Cloud-based streaming of a YouTube video wouldn't be a good choice in this instance, since uninterrupted availability for all weekend services is a necessity, not an option. A potential Internet outage, or speed issue, is not worth the risk.

* Do you have appropriate Internet access in the area where you need to run the application? Again, cloud-based software would not be a viable option—especially if you must use your laptop in a worship area that has no Internet access. 

* Do multiple people, diversely located, need to access the most current data associated with the application? Your worship planning wouldn't be very effective if contributors other than church staff (such as musicians and church members) cannot access your planning software to understand their roles. Choosing a solution offered via the cloud or in a SaaS model is the best choice in this situation. Research your cloud service providers.

* Do those providers back up your data properly? Proper data backup ensures your critical data is replicated and securely stored on an offsite server through an automated process.

* Have they earned proper SSL certification? Confidential information should be protected by industry-standard Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) technology that allows encryption of confidential information as it travels between you and the service provider.

* Will your data be stored in a secure place? Your cloud services provider should use data center resources and personnel certified and trained in the industry's best practices and policies.

* Do the cloud providers guarantee redundancy for necessities such as power and Internet connectivity so that your applications are always available for use? Your service provider should proudly display its resources for redundancies. Customers educated in cloud services demand this disclosure. 

So, is the cloud for you?
Cloud computing can be very empowering for churches wishing to use technology to stay on the leading edge of operations, member benefits, and message effectiveness. Using the cloud, you can pick and choose the SaaS solutions and virtual components best suited to your church's needs. You remain in control of your risks and your budget as you benefit from technology that otherwise might be inaccessible to your organization. 

Tom Metz is the founder and president of www.WorshipPlanning.com, a cloud service used in churches around the world to allow worship leaders to plan and share worship flow, worship musicians to access important song information, and ministries to schedule their volunteers.

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