February 06, 2011, 7:06 PM — Supporting remote users is never easy, but when you have a population spread across more than 30 countries and in some very out-of-the-way places, it can become a nightmare. Luckily, this isn't the case thanks to some careful planning by the back office provider for numerous non-profits called TechSoup Global. The company, based in San Francisco, was founded in 1987 and since then has sent more than two billion dollars of donated computer hardware and software to hundreds of non-profits around the world, along with offering dozens of seminars. There is also an extensive online learning center, where there are hundreds of how-to articles about whether to upgrade to Windows 7, buying an inexpensive phone system and network troubleshooting tips and others.
TechSoup coordinates technology donations from its vendor partners such as Adobe, Cisco, Microsoft, SAP and Symantec. Interested non-profit organizations from around the globe must first register and apply for particular gear for specific projects. TechSoup will vet the application and arrange for hardware and software to be distributed directly from the tech vendor. Our slide show highlights the wide range of organizations and what they have done with their donated technology, just a few of the thousands of non-profits that have been involved in the program over the past decade.
As an example, the Pacific Autism Center for Education in San Francisco helps parents with autistic children. The center used a combination of Flip video cameras and some additional software to give parents a picture of how much their kids have changed over the past year, so they can see their growth in a different kind of way. However, before deploying the cameras, they needed to upgrade their computers with new operating systems and install a local area network around the building.
"We never take possession of the products," says Marnie Webb, CEO of TechSoup. TechSoup has become Microsoft's single biggest technology donor partner as a result of its efforts, and TechSoup often gets its donated products on the same day they are commercially available to paying customers.
They do have their share of hurdles. "It has been a challenge to scale up to provide products in [a non-profit’s] native language," says Webb. The other challenge is to create a system that can build capacity in the community, so that the support for the particular tech product is locally available.
"We partner with an indigenous non-governmental organization who is the face of our program there, someone who has been operating for some time," says Webb. "They have connections with their own local non-profit community and understand technology constraints in that country, such as spotty Internet access. This means they are able to provide better advice on how to implement the technology over time. Non-profits now have access to the same commercial grade software and products that businesses have long taken for granted."
When you examine many of TechSoup's projects, they aren't state-of-the-art or any technical tour-de-force. Instead, they make use of the basic building blocks of any enterprise IT solution: Microsoft Office, Cisco routers, etc. "Our recipient end users are struggling with technology. They have challenges to do some of the simpler things because they have no IT staff or IT departments run by volunteers and aging equipment with outdated operating systems. Having easy and better access to Office productivity software has helped them better manage themselves. They also have day jobs that aren't tech-based, but keeping kids safe or running their programs that take priority. We come in and get them the tools they need to tell their story and become better advocates of their program to promote themselves in their communities. They also don't have to piece something together with inappropriate or outdated technologies. "
Success has its own challenges, though. TechSoup itself is also growing quickly and uses virtualization to handle its growth, going from 8 to 200 servers in the past couple of years. Like many IT shops in similar circumstances, TechSoup turned to virtualization to help handle the load. "We were preparing to move our data center, and we hadn't yet invested in a SAN. That led us to also using blade servers so we could build a better infrastructure that still has headroom, and to add new servers without having to invest in new hardware," says Tim Suttle, the network and technical operations director for TechSoup. Another supplier was Dell Kace's imaging division, which is used to roll out new PCs quickly and lower support costs. The Kace products are deployment products, similar to Symantec's Altiris or Novell Zenworks, where you can set up a large scale automated deployment to upgrade a bunch of PCs across a network, so an IT guy doesn't have to touch each PC individually if they want to roll out a new OS or add a series of apps to a collection of machines. TechSoup uses this product extensively to roll out PCs to their clients.