ManagementSpeak: This should have official Project status.

Translation: … since there are a half-dozen change orders on it already.

Reader LT thinks there is a cart-and-horse analogy in here somewhere.

Why go to the Cloud?

Don’t answer. It’s not a good question. The question to ask is whether you should go to the Cloud. And maybe where.

It might seem like a distinction without a difference. But it isn’t. Ask why and you assume the conclusion. It’s a dangerous habit, because once you do that, you gather information as ammunition, not to help you make a complicated decision.

I’ve been doing some pro bono work with a local non-profit — 25 wonderful, dedicated people, who work for far less than they could make anywhere else and run their information technology so long that if it were a car it would be an original VW Beetle, held together with duct tape and Bondo.

Their server is out of gas.

They have three different applications that have to keep track of contacts, with no integration except brute force, and no way to afford anything better. Beyond that, they’re pretty basic. MS Office. Outlook and hosted Exchange with bundled administration and support. InDesign. QuickBooks.

And a high-end networked copier/printer/scanner.

A perfect candidate to move to the Cloud.

Or so I thought until I scratched beneath the surface. It didn’t take much scratching, starting with two basics — identity management and printer queue management.

25 employees are enough to need Active Directory (or eDirectory, or LDAP, if they wanted to move to the Linux world). Right now these live inside the firewall no matter what else a company does with its architecture.

25 employees hitting a printer also means a server-mediated print queue.

Conclusion: They might not need a very big server, but they do need a server.

But surely they could do everything else in the Cloud, couldn’t they?

Sure they could, except that with a staff of 25, they just don’t need very much processing power. Storage, yes. Which, once they own a server, is cheap … dirt cheap. 2 terabytes of mirrored storage — enough to last them five years — would cost about four hundred bucks.

No, that doesn’t buy them the real-time collaboration they could get with hosted SharePoint or Google Apps. On the other hand, the most inexpensive hosted SharePoint they could get would cost them $10 per gigabyte per month.

As they’re a non-profit, they’d probably quality for Google’s free program for non-profits. Free, that is, other than what they’d have to spend to integrate it with Active Directory, recreate their current folder structure, migrate their data, and then pay for a higher-speed Internet pipe than what they currently need, because now every file retrieval is going to the Cloud and back. Estimated incremental cost: $600 per year — more than what they’d spend for 2 TB of on-site storage, once and done.

Which yes, they do need to back up. Add two backup drives, simple backup software (with encryption), and an employee willing to transport the backup drives back-and-forth and that’s taken care of for just about nothing, too.

Not fancy; more than good enough.

What to make of this?

They’re in the Cloud with hosted Exchange. The bottom line benefit doesn’t come from hardware and software savings, but from not having to employ a sysadmin to run and administer the sucker. Score one for the Cloud. Could they switch to gmail and Google Calendar? Sure, but then they’d have a migration to manage, after which they’d have to take on their own email administration and bring staff support in-house as well.

One of their three contact management applications is also in the cloud … a bulk emailing service. Same story.

So for an organization that should be an ideal target for Cloud computing, the Cloud turns out to be a case-by-case choice, not a strategic solution.

The more I look at the Cloud, the more concerned I am that its economic model is based on a seriously flawed assumption: That paying “by the drink” is more attractive than paying a lump sum and getting it over with.

No question about it — if you’re in a business where processing loads are unpredictable, varying from a low baseline level to very large short-term peaks, then the Cloud’s ability to provision resources dynamically is just the beverage you need.

I suspect, though, that most businesses will find, for most of the situations they face, what oenophiles have known forever: That when they pay by the drink, a glass of wine at a restaurant costs a whole lot more than paying by the bottle to enjoy a glass of the same fine wine at home.

That’s true even if they only drink half the bottle.