Technology changes quickly. Government changes slowly.
For nearly 20 years I've been covering what happens when the plodding course of the public sector embraces, in its own unique way, the fast-paced IT world. Despite some breathtaking and exciting new trends over the years -- from the Internet's advent to powerful, wireless computing via handheld devices -- the core business of IT in government remains, to a large extent, the many data centers that process information and store data.
These data centers range from some of the biggest in the world to servers in closets. They have been, and remain, the bread and butter of government computing. But that might be changing. Several years ago, author Nicholas Carr predicted that just as American factories had their own electric plants only to give them up to independent utilities early in the 20th century, so too, will companies and government eventually turn over information processing to independent data centers.
That idea has gained traction with the growth of cloud computing, and the public sector (surprise!) has quickly embraced the trend, thanks in part to strong support from federal government IT leaders. The general premise has been that commercial firms would be the natural providers of such cloud offerings.
But some state CIOs beg to differ. As this issue's cover story explains, state IT departments have been consolidating data centers for several years, strengthening networks and creating efficiencies to drive down costs while offering better services. The result: A handful of states are well positioned to offer cloud services to their departments and agencies, as well as local governments.
Michigan CIO Ken Theis pointed out that cities and counties in his state have been battered by the recession and are desperate for affordable IT services. Theis believes that Michigan's growing data needs, along with those of cash-strapped local jurisdictions in the state, can be met by what he calls a "public-sector cloud" solution.
But why would a state want to offer cloud services? "We know how to protect [government] information and know how to handle it," said Utah CIO Steve Fletcher, who is receiving numerous requests from local governments that want Utah to host services and store their data.
The idea isn't that radical. For years, small groups of state CIOs have hammered away at the high cost of IT by trying to devise ways to share applications, infrastructure, expertise and other assets. From Arizona to North Carolina, cities and counties are beginning to piggyback elements of their IT operations on state-run networks and data centers.
Many government critics like to decry the silos of services that drive up unneeded redundancies and exacerbate inefficiencies, but state CIOs have always fought against that tendency and have been eager to share resources. What Michigan and Utah are proposing could be a game-changer, and their stance reflects the growing leadership role of public CIOs.
The technology is in place to make public-sector cloud computing a reality -- and so is the interest. Now it's just a matter of time.