The other silver linings

Cost savings are great, but these early adopters find that cloud computing’s other perks are also well worth the effort

A century ago there were no electricity providers, so American factories produced their own power. No matter what products companies actually made, Nicholas Carr reminds us in his book “The Big Switch,” they also had to have the hardware and the expertise to generate the juice.

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Cloud comparison

But when new utilities were able to provide electricity more reliably and efficiently (read: less expensively), factories wisely got out of the power generation business and focused on what they did best.

Cloud computing will have a similar impact on information technology, Carr predicts. When an equal or better software application or other IT resource is available from the cloud for less money than buying and managing the same functionality in-house, then organizations will gladly access those services from more efficient specialists.

The first steps in this evolution are already happening. Vivek Kundra, the federal chief information officer and unabashed cloud supporter, intends to establish a government storefront where agencies can easily sign up for cloud services just like a consumer can sign up for a Facebook account.

And don’t think it’s safe to stay on the sidelines to avoid making a decision about using the cloud, since employees may force the issue sooner than later. “If you don’t give the tools to your people, they’re going to go find some other tool that is already available from a cloud service provider and do it on their own,” said Michael Nelson, a visiting professor for the Internet studies, communication, culture and technology program at Georgetown University. “Whether it is storing images on Flickr, doing collaboration in a virtual world or using Facebook, they will find it.”

Lower cost usually tops the list of reasons to move to the cloud. However, government outfits like the Army recruiting service, the Washington, D.C. city government, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence show that there are other valuable benefits, such as rolling out new applications more quickly, creating functionality that was difficult or impossible to achieve before, and building a common platform to enable better information sharing.

But their experiences also show that using the cloud is not as easy as flipping a switch, and that the services, whether delivered by a third-party or an internal cloud, are not a panacea for all IT ills. There are numerous technical and policy obstacles to navigate, so proper diligence is in order. Here’s why some government organizations are moving to the cloud, and what they’re finding out as they go there.

Benefit: Quicker access to new applications and functionality

When Maj. Larry Dillard set out to modernize the Army’s recruiting operations he faced a serious problem: The service’s 1980s recruiting business model had an IT infrastructure that was just as old.

Dillard’s team knew that the existing technology could not support their goals for reinventing the way the Army markets itself to recruits. The existing model requires recruiters to spend a lot of time making phone calls and knocking on doors just to get a few solid leads, Dillard said.

Army officials looked at several customer relationship management (CRM) software applications to automate some of the functions performed by soldiers under the newly designed paradigm. The $500,000 to $750,000 price tags were too much for Dillard’s small pilot program.

Then they discovered that Salesforce.com’s cloud solution could deliver the functionality they sought at a fraction of the price.

“What started out as a tool to allow us to innovate in other areas quickly became a driver of a lot of innovation,” Dillard said. “Once we got off the old legacy client server model and moved over to a cloud software-as-a-service model, we had a lot of flexibility to do other things.”

For example, they recently added an interface to Facebook so that recruiters can take information from the popular social networking site and port it back to their CRM application.

“It is pretty powerful stuff, which we could never do using a homegrown IT architecture,” Dillard said.

They also created a mashup — an application that draws on functionality or data from different sources — that marries Google Maps with Census Bureau data to figure out which neighborhoods are good targets for recruiting.

Dillard said finding and using these cloud services made him feel like he was in an Apple iPhone advertisement because he kept repeating the ad campaign’s tag line: “There’s an app for that.”

The best part though is not having to worry about building all these capabilities on his own dime.

“I’m running a scalable, enterprise-capable application with no IT staff at all,” he said.

Officials in Washington, D.C., have also become enthusiastic cloud users, thanks in large part to Vivek Kundra, who previously served as the district’s chief technology officer.

Kundra saw cloud computing as a way to quickly and inexpensively improve the city’s technology profile.

City workers now regularly use the Google Apps software service to collaborate on documents, spreadsheets and presentations, instead of paying for more costly software licenses to acquire and run equivalent applications in-house.

Also, the city’s geographical information system is integrated with Google Maps so employees are able to visualize information. The fire department uses the system to locate fire hydrants near fires. Other managers use the system to track how city workers are performing in the field, and to redeploy workers when necessary.

Despite the success with the cloud applications, the city is still working through some of the challenges of using the emerging technology, said Tom Jones, the city’s deputy CTO. For example, the city government has mandates to save records on former employees. With a traditional, self-hosted application, a person’s profile can be deleted, but the records remain in the city’s databases.

With many of today’s cloud systems, once a person is deleted all the data disappears.

“That’s not allowable for us, so we have to build tools that can be a front end to that, to capture all that before it gets wiped out,” Jones said. “It was not a pleasant surprise.”

Also, cloud computing solutions often do not have the range of administrative tools IT staffs are used to having with traditional systems, he said. For example, it is often not possible to search across multiple cloud systems. That can be an issue when responding to Freedom of Information Act requests.

“We have to capture and back up some of the data before we put it in the cloud because they don’t have the administrative tools we need,” Jones said.

Even with the challenges, government agencies should not wait for cloud computing solutions to be perfected before they adopt them, Jones said. Agencies should think about the cloud being just like any other architecture that has pros and cons.

Benefit: Build a common platform

Not all cloud services are delivered by an outsider. In fact, government may generally favor the internal cloud model, so it can retain greater control over its data yet still gain the economy of scale benefits. It also allows an agency to call its own shots in system design and security.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence launched its own cloud computing platform designed to facilitate information sharing among the 16 intelligence agencies.

“The object of our program is to do things that were essentially impossible before,” said Randy Garrett, director of technology and the Integrated Intelligence Program at the National Security Agency.

Information-sharing processes that took hours or days before can happen in minutes in the pilot version of the cloud, he said.

“If a military commander in the field has a question, and there is information that relates to the question, it is available,” Garrett said. “No matter where the information comes from, no matter which agency has it, it is accessible to that commander.”

In the ODNI model, information, such as unstructured text and streaming data, is fed into the cloud that is hosted on geographically dispersed data centers owned by intelligence agencies throughout the world.

Common software at all the sites makes it possible to share data in ways that was impossible before, Garrett said. The system also uses common hardware to increase acquisition and administrative efficiency.

“Even though the centers are distributed, to the user it looks like one center,” Garrett said.

When building a private cloud, agencies should ensure it is accessible to all its intended users regardless of circumstances. Many of ODNI’s users have ample bandwidth, but others are deployed to areas that will likely never have reliable high-speed access, he said.

Agencies should also be prepared to do a lot of custom work to get a private cloud operating.

“A lot of the base technology is fairly immature,” Garrett said. “That didn’t mean it was impossible to work with, but it does mean that you shouldn’t expect to get a shrink-wrapped disk and just put that on the computer and it is all going to work.”

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.