Cloud Integration Solutions – What’s the Deal?
As social good organizations continue to hurl through the twenty-first century, they are managing more and more (and more) data than ever before. Long gone are the days of ‘a database’ – we now manage numerous, vast repositories of data that result from recording not only demographic information and financial transactions, but all manner of consumer behavior, psychographic details, preferences (likes, along with dislikes), and social activity.
One thing that has not changed, however, is the need to have access to all of this data in a common location so that it can be analyzed, and then leveraged as effectively as possible to build the strongest relationships possible with donors, supporters, and other organizational constituents. Nonprofits – still and always – rely on quality data to achieve fundraising targets, which in turn ensure the achievement of organizational goals and purpose.
There was a time when external data could be keyed into a database or into a spreadsheet of manageable breadth for easy import. These days, conversely, not only is there far more data to get into development database systems-of-record, but more and more systems, both data sources and data destinations, reside in the cloud. So that adds levels of safety but also of complexity in managing and exchanging data.
Okay, so what exactly is ‘the cloud’?
‘The cloud’, when discussed in terms of computer systems and resources, is a symbolic expression that refers to networked computer hardware, data storage, data access, business and technical applications, and computing power that are not managed directly by end-users. Rather, the entire suite of hardware, data, and software is managed by external service providers and made available to end-users over the internet.
While early data-sharing was pioneered in the 1980s and grew in the 1990s leveraging telecommunication (ie, telephone) technology, it was not until 2010 that cloud-providers such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and Rackspace Hosting began setting the pace as cloud providers.
Over the course of the past ten to 15 years, functional and technical software solutions too numerous to mention have been fully built on cloud technology and deployed to companies, nonprofits, and individual users. Similarly, many stalwart software applications that were built years ago to be deployed ‘on-premises’ – before ‘the cloud’ even existed – have been refactored and deployed as cloud-based solutions. Probably the most pervasive example is Microsoft Office 365, in which application software and data (ie, content) is all worked on, saved, stored, shared, and otherwise managed over the internet.
Blackbaud’s Luminate Online® and Raiser’s Edge NXT® are examples of business solutions for nonprofits that 100% cloud-based. End users and administrators simply need a computer (or other device) and an internet connection in order to leverage the power and productivity of either – or both – of those systems.
Okay, now what is an integration solution?
Data integration is the process that consolidates data from different sources into a united and cohesive environment, typically a database ‘system of record’. Nonprofit organizations today have a great need for data integrations. Typically they will use robust ‘back office’ CRM systems, such as Blackbaud Raiser’s Edge NXT or Salesforce NPSP, and may also use additional point solutions for advanced capabilities: things like advocacy, peer-to-peer event management, email marketing, and more.
An integration solution is a technical, computer-based platform or application that automates the various components of the data consolidation process (or processes). Many contemporary integration solutions leverage application programming interfaces (‘APIs’) that further automate data-mapping and the exchange of data between naturally corresponding data elements within the source and destination systems.
Sometimes end-users think that an import tool is the same as an integration solution. In truth, importing data is only one part of a true integration solution. A comprehensive integration solution consumes data from a data source and might standardize it, correct it, and/or transform it before mapping it to the corresponding destination fields. It might create different record types in the destination depending upon the source data. It might score and match incoming records against existing records so that duplicates are not created. Finally, using those APIs discussed above, an integration solution is able to actually connect the source system to the destination system so that data can be exchanged directly – and bidirectionally – eliminating the need for data files.
Suffice it to say that importing is great and all – saves time and effort – but a true integration solution is ‘smarter’, built to be more intuitive, and will result in current, clean, and complete data flowing on demand between all germane systems that are part of an organization’s overall data environment.
Great; I got it. So why a cloud-based integration solution?
A cloud-based integration solution can provide all of the benefits of data integration technology for nonprofits with few if any of the headaches. In addition, if your source and destination systems are already cloud-based to begin with, end-users and administrators will already be comfortable with cloud technology and security – aspects of the existing systems that will also be present in the integration platform.
Installation and Maintenance
With a cloud solution, administrators and end-users have nothing to install or maintain – no hardware, no servers, no special laptop or desktop software, etc. The cloud solution provider is fully responsible not only for the all of the hardware and software needed to run the solution, but also for upgrades, updates, patches, etc. Typically, end-users are always using the latest-released version of the solution with the most up-to-date features. The only thing that the IT team has to concern itself with is a reliable high-speed internet connection for each user and local equipment (laptops, monitors) that can support the recommended web browsers and user interface. The provider will be able to provide those specifications.
If you are on the finance team, you’ll be happy with a reduced information technology spend, which will very likely mean saving money on the cost of ownership (but, of course, be sure that the monthly or annual cost bears that out). If you are on the IT team or a database administrator, you will likely be saving time and effort (which equals money) by not having to install hardware, install software, install updates, etc. Additional IT time may be saved by not having to work around the occasional glitches in local software that may be present until a bug is investigated, addressed, and new release made available.
Remote access, anyone? As long as you have a computer, a web browser, and an internet connection, you can access the solution, anytime, anywhere. While this is more important than ever in a pandemic and when working remotely, it also won’t limit access to only ‘business as usual’ when things get closer back to normal. And, for organizations using cloud-based source and destination database systems – well, just think about the flexibility to work whenever you want, wherever you want, and in conjunction with you and your family’s ever-more-complex schedule.
As mentioned above – but worth mentioning again – cloud solution providers are generally responsible for software updates and hardware upgrades. Generally, new releases are more frequent, engendering newer/better features delivered more quickly than the typical high-content-but-less-frequent releases typically furnished by legacy solution providers. More frequent updates but with fewer new features each time means that end-users and admins are routinely given more bite-sized improvements, rather than barraged with numerous changes all at once that are often hard to fully get a handle on.
Integration in ‘the cloud’ – why not?
Nonprofits will continue to be inundated with data, and if integration solutions are not put into place, teams from all sides of the organization will see some unfortunate outcomes:
- Without integration, data remains siloed in different systems, causing ‘blind spots’ for the fundraisers and other professionals who need to it to engage constituents, raise money, and further the mission
- With rudimentary import tools, not only will Admins need to manage and manipulate numerous files, but they will also not be able to effectively address non-standard data, improper casing, and dreaded duplicate records too numerous to mention. The post-import duplication process alone could be a full-time job – meaning time spent on administrative efforts rather than being ‘redeployed’ toward fundraising, stewardship, or mission delivery.
Today’s organizations have robust CRMs layered under other systems that provide extended capabilities for their complex constituent engagement, programming, and fundraising needs. For these nonprofits, an equally substantial integration solution is critical to ensure that all their data are always current, clean, and complete.
And integration in ‘the cloud’? Well, we’ve already discussed the benefits of cloud-based solutions: maintainability, economy, accessibility, improvability, etc. Organizations with lots of data needing lots of integration will also need the considerable resources available in ‘the cloud’ order to continue successfully hurling through the twenty-first century.