August 10, 2009 By Steve Towns, Editor
Less than a year after its high-profile adoption of Google's hosted e-mail and productivity tools, cloud computing has become Washington, D.C.'s first option for deploying new applications, according to Chris Willey, the district's interim chief technology officer (CTO).
Willey's predecessor, Vivek Kundra, drew widespread attention last fall when he acquired 38,000 licenses for Google Apps and offered those licenses to any district government agency that wanted to use them. Kundra was named national CTO by President Barack Obama in March.
Video: Chris Willey, interim CTO for Washington D.C., says the District may try to create a new model for acquiring software.
Willey, in a recent interview with Government Technology, said Google Apps and other cloud-based services have saved the district millions of dollars and generated scores of useful new tools.
"Anytime we are deploying a new application, we look first to the cloud," he said. "We look to see what cloud services are available before we look to applications that have to be developed or deployed inside our data center."
Washington, D.C., government agencies have used Google Apps to create intranets, training videos, online surveys and other useful resources. In addition, the city has used Intuit's QuickBase -- a hosted collaboration tool -- to create scores of new applications.
"We built 85 applications over the course of about 10 months, and it only cost us a couple hundred thousand dollars," Willey said. "If we were trying to do the same thing using traditional tools, it would have taken years and it would have cost several million dollars."
For instance, the CTO's office created a simple customer relationship management (CRM) application to track projects it undertakes for other city departments. The office created another tool that city departments can use for administrating short-term tasks like summer youth employment programs.
The applications are built by Willey's office and then turned over to other city departments that need them. Willey said many of the new applications owe their existence to the low-cost cloud development model.
"I would say that many of these applications would never have been built, either because the priority would never have been great enough or they would have been too costly to develop," he said. "QuickBase gives us an opportunity to create these applications that people need, but would not necessarily have ever been built."
So far, the district focuses its cloud-computing activities on business automation, e-mail and personal productivity. For those tasks, the cloud is safe enough for Willey.
"I think that choosing Google early on was a good choice, because they had to think more about security and spend so much more money than we could ever spend making sure that their systems are protected," he said. "They are probably a No. 1 target on the Internet for hacking and denial-of-service attacks."
Sensitive government information remains in-house, however.
"There are some areas that we're not ready to move into the cloud because of the privacy and sensitivity of certain types of data," Willey said. "Eventually, after we win people over, we will be able to take those higher-order applications into the cloud as well."
Another roadblock to wider adoption is the relative immaturity of the cloud-computing market. In some cases, the district simply can't find an appropriate cloud-based solution.
"There are places where cloud offerings just aren't available yet," Willey said. "We also look for choice. So in some cases, there may be only one provider. We'd really like there to be two or three because it gives us flexibility, competition, as well as choices if one particular player drops out."
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