Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel? Polonius: By the mass, and ‘tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.
Hamlet, Act 3 scene 2.
Forsooth, this cloud is formless and constantly shifting … how should we think of its relevance for government Polonius?
Cloud = just-in-time IT
Cloud computing refers to sourcing standardised ICT services over the internet on a pay-as-you-go basis. Services can include software applications, applications development platforms and ICT infrastructure (processing and storage) – all delivered as a service. Pure cloud computing exemplars include Netsuite, Salesforce, Google App Engine, Amazon Web Services, GoGrid and Nirvanix, among many others. In addition, the major IT vendors such as IBM, HP, Oracle and Sun Microsystems are making major investments in the enterprise cloud market – providing a “just in time” IT complement/alternative to inhouse ICT resources.
Beware, there be dragons
Putting my “chicken little” hat on, it is easy to be sceptical of the relevance of cloud computing to government agencies. Reservations stem from a range of concerns, including:
• Not yet enterprise ready – cloud is really just for SMBs.
• Security and privacy risks arising from off-shore datacentres.
• Lack of management frameworks and SLAs.
• Loss of direct control over data – how can you be sure anything is ever really deleted in the cloud?
• Data telecoms costs and constraints.
• Software licensing uncertainties.
• Being left with stranded assets.
Many of these concerns have parallels to the early years of outsourcing, and will likely be resolved over time as enterprise-level cloud services mature. For the moment though, many enterprises still discount the cloud as “not yet ready for real work”.
But, let’s pause to feel the logic
Changing into my “Toad of Toad Hall” hat, I think that public sector IT executives need to focus on understanding new logic that cloud computing offers.
Cloud computing is a new user-centric greenfield approach to radically simplifying and standardising IT to make it much easier to consume. Some of the characteristics of “cloud logic” include:
• Making it easy for customers to try and buy the service online.
• Enabling simple and automated online provisioning.
• Making the service catalogue and its architecture, pricing and performance transparent.
• Offering standardised configurable services and APIs.
• Enabling customers to self-serve and peer group support.
• Evolving the service iteratively based on actual user behaviour data.
• Engineering for best practice, lowest, operating costs.
• Providing seamless scalability and resiliency.
Cloud logic is the new logic of the internet. “Try it, you’ll like it. If you do, just start using it and pay as you go … we’ll look after the rest.” It is a welcome breath of fresh air compared to the complex and unresponsive swamp of inhouse IT. We should look to what the cloud can offer and where it should be applied, rather than denouncing its shortcomings.
Start in the right place
Some agencies agree with the fictional character Toad of Toad Hall, and are already adopting cloud services. Use of Salesforce’s CRM solution is becoming more common. The US Government’s Defence IS Agency is implementing an internal cloud – called a Rapid Access Computing Environment. Indeed, the new US Government CIO is a vocal advocate of cloud computing as a way to reduce IT costs. Schools and universities are increasingly adopting cloud email services. Cloud services are being used for urgent applications in disaster and public emergency situations.
Here are two thoughts on places to start:
• Use cloud providers as a model for shared ICT services in government – to create a ‘G-Cloud’ exhibiting the characteristics of cloud logic outlined above … rather than those of a traditional IT shared services entity (we all know what those are).
• Use cloud services to address unmet user needs. Cloud services can form a useful complement to inhouse ICT, particularly for applications that are urgent, have tight budgets, are relatively stand-alone, do not involve sensitive data and/or are aimed at collaboration across multiple agencies.
Don’t smother the golden-cloud goose
Avoid the temptation to impose the full baggage of legacy IT expectations, requirements and regulation upon cloud services.
The cloud is by definition the standardisation and simplification antithesis of inhouse IT. The trick is to apply cloud logic to those areas where inhouse IT is failing your enterprise - rather than seeking to apply it (unjustifiably) to areas where inhouse IT is already adequate.
Steve Hodgkinson is research director, public sector, for Ovum in Melbourne. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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