4 questions to ask about cloud computing

3 Sep 2010

No business or government leader today can ignore cloud computing. It will affect how computing strategies are developed and managed, how information is controlled, and how the economics of business technology are applied. Here are some essential questions government decision-makers should be asking about this still-new phenomenon.

1. What is cloud computing and how does it work?

Cloud computing allows users – from citizens to departmental employees to IT support staff – to obtain computing capabilities through the internet, regardless of their physical location.

Beneficial characteristics of cloud services include:

  • Little or no capital investment;
  • Variable pricing based on consumption; buyers pay per use;
  • Rapid acquisition and deployment;
  • Lower ongoing operating costs.

The basic technologies are well established and can be duplicated by any organisation. That makes it possible for governments to build private clouds – restricted infrastructure that uses cloud computing technologies but is only shared among approved organisations. Given the specific challenges that governments face with respect to storing, securing and processing data, and data privacy restrictions, private clouds are likely to play a key role in the evolution of cloud computing for government organisations.

2. What benefits can the cloud bring to my government organisation?

The top 3 benefits of cloud computing today are cost, flexibility and speed to market.

Cost: Low prices on cloud services are a big part of their allure. Savings come from eliminating the cost of servers, software licenses, maintenance fees, data centre space, electricity and IT labour, and the benefits of replacing a large upfront capital expense with a low, pay-for-use operating expense.

Flexibility: Clouds can be summoned quickly when needed, grow by assigning more servers to a job, then shrink or disappear when no longer needed.

Speed: Clouds empower any programmer to create a software service using free or low-cost development tools and make it available quickly, potentially making government departments much more agile and responsive.

3. How should government executives take advantage of cloud computing?

Given the scale and diversity of IT environments across local and central governments, and the expense to build and maintain them, our view is that private clouds are likely to play a key role in the evolution of cloud computing for governments. Adopting a cloud computing strategy that seamlessly integrates public and private cloud capabilities with legacy IT systems as part of the overall IT strategy could bring significant benefits.

Governments must consider which applications are suitable to run in the public cloud (eg, non-sensitive data applications, and development and test work), which require a private cloud solution. In short, this “hybrid” approach would meet requirements for in-country processing and data privacy/security as well as lower costs.

We see cloud computing being a key enabler in helping governments make significant leaps in how they operate. For example:

1. There’d be greater cross-governmental sharing, which allows citizens to access everything they need from their government through a common portal.

2. Government departments would develop applications to support their operations using pre-approved, cloud-based platforms, or would use preconfigured applications that come with built-in hardware, networking, security and other services.

3. Data security would be provided at the appropriate levels through a government cloud.

4. Governments would access cloud infrastructure services through a competitive, real-time market for services (as with energy).

5. Governments would have the IT power to use data analytics techniques to detect errors and potential fraud quickly and easily.

4. What about assurance of security and data privacy?

Most governments tag data with varying levels of sensitivity, from low-level (published widely and no restrictions) to ultra-secure (classified security information for top government leaders only). Likewise, governments must design their clouds to have similar and appropriate security built in, through a managed combination of both private and public clouds. The key to understanding security in cloud computing is to realise that the technology is not new or untested.

The critical issue isn’t whether cloud computing will become a fundamental technology in the next decade. It is how successfully organisations will profit from the capabilities it offers. Managing the new cloud capabilities with all the existing legacy systems in a way that is seamless to government departments and users will be critical to achieving the benefits and managing the risks.

By Andrew Greenaway