What are the basic IT needs of an NGO?

tags:  CEE content

The article below originates from our South African partner SangoNet - and is focused on South Africa. However, reading it in any country in the world is equally applicapble for the basic IT needs of an NGO.

Tech Tips: An IT Cheat Sheet

This article provides some notes, definitions and explanations of the various components of a likely set-up for a South African NGO. For anything but the most basic set-up you will need the services of a consultant or IT company. Nonetheless, it is useful to have some understanding of how the various components fit together

The Network

Smaller organisations with up to five personal computers (PCs) will probably start with a ‘peer-to-peer’ network – where a cabling system links the PCs together and facilitates basic file and printer sharing without a need to set up a separate server. However, to achieve the full potential of a network, an organisation with five or more computers should consider a “client/server’ solution. Instead of linking PCs to each other, they are all connected to a more powerful central server, which co-ordinates and runs software programmes, manages the information flow between PCs across the organisation, and provides security and backup of information stored centrally. This will enable staff to communicate freely with each other as well as customers and suppliers, share files and data, plus resources such as faxes and printers and work effectively online.

The Server

The server acts as the ‘brain’ of the company and it should be up and running all day every day. The server must have a much bigger hard drive than desktop PCs, as it will be used to store all files, programmes, and users’ data. It should use two or more hard drives that mirror each other, allowing one hard drive to fail while the other hard drive can continue, thus reducing server downtime.

As an organisation grows, there may be merit in splitting the functions of the server into two machines. When a network connects anything over 15-20 machines, it is worth investing in a second machine. The first machine can then be used as a file and mail server (storing the organisation’s data and email), while the second may be used to as a firewall and proxy server allowing all users access to the internet while protecting the internal network from outside attack.

Network Operating System and Server Applications

The server needs a special kind of operating system to manage the interactions between the different PCs on the network. There are various options one can choose from depending on the organisation’s size and needs with regards to which operating system to use. Examples of server software include various Linux server editions, and Microsoft Server 2003.
Probably the most common applications to be found on the server are file sharing, centralised email and database services. Some products – such as Microsoft Small Business Server – come with many server applications bundled together. In other cases you need to select the various components required according to need. You may be constrained by the specific requirements of existing software - your accounting system may need a specific database installed on the server.

Backup unit

The backup unit is a critical tool for the system. It is used to store a copy of data in case the system fails or data is deleted accidentally. This is – like insurance – ia a grudge purchase, since if nothing goes wrong you’ve spent a lot of money to gain no additional functionality. The moment it is required, however, it needs to working perfectly.

The standard backup solution is still to use backup tapes, as they give the lowest cost per megabyte. Tape drives are expensive however - and their capacity (the amount of data that can fit onto a single tape) always seems to be just behind the amount of space you have on your server hard drive.

Alternative solutions for backup include using increasingly cheap large capacity hard drives instead of tapes. This may well be viable, but it is vital that any solution is adequately tested in real-world scenarios to ensure that back-ups are available when required.

There has to be a proper back-up procedure for automated backups. Below is an example of a routine back-up procedure:

  • 4 weekday tapes – Monday to Thursday
  • 4 Friday tapes - Friday 1 to Friday 4 (Friday 1 for the first Friday of the month and so on)
  • 12 Monthly tapes – to be used on the last day of the month.
    Weekly and monthly tapes should be stored off the premises to cater for disaster recovery in cases of events such as fires and other natural disasters.

Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS)

Another unglamorous item of equipment, the UPS needs to be connected to the server, so that the server continues to function using the UPS’s battery power in case of a power surge or power failure. This enables the services running on the server to be stopped and the entire server shut down properly with no risk of loss or damage of data. The UPS needs to be tested and checked on a regular basis.

Cabling (and wireless)

Cabling allows information to travel through the network and connects the components together. Using good quality compatible cabling will cater for any network expansion should the organisation grow. The use of 100mb – and even 1gb for larger organisations - cabling is recommended.
Wireless networking is increasingly an option in offices today – particularly if many users have laptops. There are some trade-offs with wireless however; slower speeds, lower reliability and security issues all militate against an ‘all-wireless’ option, even in new offices where the temptation to avoid cabling is greatest.
Wireless is best used in addition to cabling to allow mobility within the office for laptop users, and to provide visitors and consultants with limited access to network resources (internet access, printers etc).
Security is very important with wireless connectivity – access to the network may spill over the physical bounds of your office, so restrictions must be enforced.
The cabling is connected at a central point at a switch.


Connectivity is necessary for even the smallest organisation. Options range from dial-up (using an ordinary phone line to call an Internet service provider, and generally not appropriate unless very limited and occasional connectivity is required) to a dedicated diginet line which guarantees a specific level of service.

For most organisations the most appropriate form of connectivity is likely to be an ADSL line. This technology uses standard telephone lines to provide broadband internet access. There are different speeds and bandwidth packages available, and some additional value-added services such as fixed IP addresses which makes it easier to provide hosted services (such as webmail access) inside the organisation. In addition to the ADSL line, a contract with an ISP is also required and is variable depending on how much data is downloaded.

The main advantage of ADSL (certainly over dial-up) is that it offers a permanent – and fast - connection to the internet – so no delay in sending or receiving email or waiting to connect to the internet– and there is a fixed, usually monthly, cost.

In some areas ADSL may not be available. There are alternatives; wireless connectivity through providers such as iBurst and Sentech, and through the cell phone providers who offer technologies such as HSDPA, 3G EDGE and GPRS. The coverage of these technologies is often similar to ADSL however (although EDGE and GPRS are more widely available). For organisations in rural areas, satellite connectivity may be the only option available.

The Desktop

Personal Computers

Choosing new desktop (or laptop) hardware requires thoughtful planning and careful budgeting. The specification of a PC is dependent upon the performance of the various elements of hardware contained within it. The higher the specifications, the faster your machine can process and store information and the greater capacity it has to store data. Some points to remember are:

  • Don’t assume everyone has the same needs. Many organisations invest in the same computers for everyone, thus wasting a lot of money by over-investing in people’s workstations. Tailor PC purchases to the needs of the individual user; some applications do require higher performance PCs. Users doing any kind of graphic design work require a fairly fast PC and a good graphics card; researchers doing quantitive analysis don’t need the graphics card, but will be more productive with a very fast processor.
  • Having said that, it is usually worthwhile to standardise on at least the source of your PCs – saving a few hundred –or even thousand – rand on a PC will will pale in comparison to the cost of administering support by lots of different vendors.
  • Laptops provide the ability to work from home or on the road and are useful for presentations. They cost significantly more than desktop PCs and are less easy to upgrade, giving them a shorter lifespan. They may also cost more to maintain and to insure. Nonetheless, with the exception of specialist applications mentioned above, the trade-off in performance is usually acceptable.
  • It may be worth disabling some of the functionality of operating systems to reduce user errors. This might include preventing users from changing screen savers, changing monitor settings, and so on. Making such changes, while not necessarily popular, can significantly reduce maintenance budgets, as much maintenance entails fixing user-created errors.

Standard Applications and Operating Systems

Standard Office applications such as word processors and spreadsheets as well as software to allow email access will probably be required for each PC. More specialised software – accounting, payroll, graphic design and statistical software for example – may be installed on a limited number of machines

Anti-virus Software

Anti virus software should be installed on all workstations including the server, particularly when exchanging information with external organisations using email and downloading information from the Internet. Antivirus software should be automatically updated on a regular basis; this requires that regular subscription renewals be budgeted for.


One of the first benefits of even the simplest networks is that users are able to share resources such as printers. Not only is this is a capital saving (you don’t have to buy printers for all users) but also should allow savings on an ongoing basis; generally a larger more expensive printer has a far cheaper cost per page, and is usually easier and more cost effective to fix. If you require a copier, it may be an idea to investigate user this as your main office printer – again cost per page is usually lower than a personal printer, and you may get additional functionality such as duplex printing, scanning and desktop faxing. Make sure that you have sufficient volumes however – the cheaper cost per page usually only kicks in after a minimum number of copies/prints have been made. It also important not to be too reliant on a single machine – it will inevitably have some downtime – so a standby printer should be available.
If you have colour printing requirements – perhaps for presentations or bound reports – you have a number of options. The most basic is to purchase an inkjet printer; these give good – even photo – quality for a low initial outlay. The cost per page, however, is very high so this is only appropriate if you are printing very limited quantities.
If your requirements require the printing of business graphics – letterheads, graphs etc – you should consider a laser printer. These are more expensive to begin with but do make it viable to print reports and other documents in colour.
If your requirements are fairly sophisticated – perhaps you print packs for workshops regularly – you could look at a multipurpose colour printer/copier. These are very expensive and are usually taken on a lease agreement over a number of years; nonetheless they increasingly offer features such as scanning, binding and so on. Again, volume is key to justify this expense.
Abuse of printing resources – especially colour- can be problematic, especially if the main printer used by all staff has colour facilities. Most high-end copier/printers have security and tracking measures built which is another reason to consider them in a medium to large office.

Software Licensing

When you buy a certain types of popular software package for your network or PC, unless stated otherwise, you are buying the rights to use it on one PC only. It is illegal to copy software onto more than one PC without a licence to do so – make sure you have a license for each PC and server.

The exception to this is in the case of open source software. Such software - examples include Open Office productivity suite, the linux operating system or the Mozilla web browser - may be freely downloaded or purchased on CD and then installed on as many PCs as required.


The organisation needs to build their staff software skills so they can be productive. Effective training can reduce help desk calls, increase staff productivity, ensure effective software implementation and lower support costs and improve IT staff’s performance. The ASPs and IT Service Providers may assist in developing user manuals and procedures for staff on using the network infrastructure and customizing of software (macros, and templates etc.).

Further Reading
Much of the information in this short guide has been taken from Managing ICTs in South African Schools: A Guide for School Principals developed by SAIDE in 2004. This resource is freely available on the SAIDE website – www.saide.org.za and although it is directed at schools and teachers it has detailed information on budgeting and planning that would be useful to NGOs.