IT Trends: Getting it Done

As the lead IT person for a church with a congregation of more than a thousand, I find that getting it all done with the manpower available can be a difficult
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IT Trends:
Getting it Done

Sep 1, 2005 12:00 PM, By Brian Glass

As the lead IT person for a church with a congregation of more than a thousand, I find that getting it all done with the manpower available can be a difficult task, since I am a volunteer who can only give 10 to 15 hours per week. I can't speak for all houses of worship, but I think it is common for even moderately large churches to depend on a volunteer IT team.

The main difficulty for a small team is staying focused on the mission of the church rather than focusing on the details of technology. The primary purpose of volunteers in a house of worship is to perform ministry. Infrastructure is necessary, but secondary. It's great if a church has the resources to hire a full IT staff, but even many large mega-churches outsource such things as church management software.

If absolutely necessary, outsourcing can take the place of hiring an IT staff or having a few good volunteers. In practice, though, nothing beats having a small group of dedicated volunteers or staff members who can be trusted to have the best interest of the church as a central concern and who understand what can be done with IT. This small group can do amazing things by leveraging the power of outsourcing.

KEY ATTRIBUTES OF SERVICES

There are many opportunities for contractors to fulfill the IT needs of churches. There are several key attributes each of these services need to have:

  • Interoperability: Churches depend on numerous volunteers. This results in varying flavors of equipment and software being used. Most volunteers use Microsoft Windows. However, people with a design or art background tend to use Macs, and Linux is becoming increasingly popular. There are also PocketPCs, Palm devices, and web-capable phones. Most churches want to leverage the equipment the volunteer already owns, so it is important that services support as many types of software and devices as possible.
  • Remote Accessibility: The volunteer workforce, and often even the staff, is highly distributed. Volunteers usually work from home in their off hours and cannot afford to waste time driving to a central location. Services need to be accessible from anywhere.
  • Portability: Churches are increasingly portable. My church is a great example. We rent our facility, so we go through an elaborate setup and tear-down procedure each week. We regularly set up and tear down things such as staging, our café, and our secure child check-in system. Even churches that own a building often use facilities for multiple purposes and require mobility.

EXAMPLES OF SERVICES

Networking: Network design, wiring, installation, maintenance, and security all can be outsourced. It is best if a local contractor can do this work. Often, the best mix is to contract out the design and installation, then have the inhouse IT crew manage it. Once a network is up and running, it generally requires minimal maintenance.

Web Hosting: Web hosting is probably the most common type of outsourcing. It takes so much more time, effort, and money to buy the adequate bandwidth, buy and configure your own server, and perform maintenance that it is becoming uncommon to do this inhouse.

Just a few years ago it would have been difficult to set up a data-driven site with a custom setup. Now, even if you need 100 percent control, you can buy what is known as a virtual private server (VPS) or a virtual dedicated server (VDS). These provide you with what appears to you to be a complete server with administrative access and 100 percent control. A VPS partitions a computer into multiple virtual computers. A VDS provides better performance because you have the whole computer to yourself. A VPS is more cost-effective, but a VDS is necessary in more demanding applications.

Hosting can be outsourced, but it is best to have the content and design created inhouse. Churches that don't have skilled web designers will need to outsource this, but having church members design the site allows the unique flavor of the local church to shine through and adds a personal touch.

Streaming Media: Streaming audio and video is increasingly common. Many churches want to broadcast weekend services or provide past services for viewing. A web-hosting company that includes streaming is ideal, but often it is necessary to host these separately.

There are several types of streaming. Historically, there have been three main streaming formats: RealPlayer, Windows Media Player, and QuickTime. The drawback with these formats is that users usually need to download a browser plug-in. Windows Media Player comes installed on all Windows-based machines, but it is not easily viewable from a Macintosh.

A relatively new format is Flash Video Streaming Service from Macromedia. The beauty of this format: About 98 percent of all computers have the Flash plug-in already installed.

Some services provide genuine streaming that adjusts to the viewer's bandwidth. Others provide pseudo-streaming that simply waits until a significant portion of the file is downloaded and then starts playing it. Both can be useful depending on the application.

Backups: Backups are critical, but also a huge hassle. There is a growing market for Internet backup services that take care of most of the details for you. Many of the existing services do not have good multi-platform support. Although these services won't suffice for video production, they work great for most other applications.

File Sharing: File sharing is becoming more difficult as files get bigger. Email servers usually block email larger than a couple of megabytes. A church could set up and maintain its own server on the Internet for file sharing, but why bother? Online Storage Solutions, one of many available services, supplies 10GB of space for $4.95 per month.

Church Management Software: Application Service Provider (ASP)-based church management solutions are a growing market. The most sophisticated of these provides membership management, contact management, website integration, computerized child check-in, online tithing, and a host of other things. They provide access from any remote location through a web browser.

In addition to the features of the software, the ASP provides maintenance, including backups, database maintenance and optimization, and software upgrades.

Calendaring: In a pure Microsoft setting, the obvious choice is Microsoft Exchange, but calendaring in a heterogeneous environment can be difficult. Most services focus on one platform or the other, but not both. My church has a diverse group of Macs, PCs, Linux machines, Pocket PCs, Palm handheld devices, and cellular phones that all need to share calendars.

I have found two standards are key: SyncML and Apple iCal. SyncML is available for many phones, Pocket PCs, and Palm handheld devices. There are tools that allow Microsoft Outlook to sync with a SyncML server. SyncML allows nearly any system to sync calendar information with a SyncML calendar server.

Most non-Outlook calendar programs use the iCal standard. iCal programs allow you to subscribe to other people's iCal calendars. They are published and read using standard Internet protocols.

The closest solution I have found at this point is a service that syncs calendar clients via SyncML, then publishes those calendars using iCal. There is a strong need for this type of service.

CONCLUSION

It is key for a church to use its resources wisely. Church IT people need to have a heart for ministry and be sold on the mission of the house of worship they serve. IT knowledge and skill is secondary. People with these qualities accomplish much more than would be accomplished through the judicious use of outsourcing. Contractors can fill this need by working closely with church IT teams and knowing churches' special needs.

Brian Glasscan be reached atbrian@glassbrian.com.

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