This article is an excerpt from an upcoming feature, the full version of which will appear later this fall in Public CIO magazine and Web site.

How cloudy is your IT future looking? Services and activities once done on private computers are now moving "into the cloud," as customers subscribe to computing services hosted by centralized service providers.

Although the actual term "cloud computing" came about only late last year, there are already a number of applications, from hardware clouds (where customers rent hardware from a large data center) to software clouds (involving software as a service running on a hardware cloud) and desktop clouds (running word processing or spreadsheet applications from a hardware cloud).

Cloud computing is still in its early stages, but the public sector is already beginning to see advantages to this new trend in computing:

  • Reduced Cost

    Cloud technology is paid incrementally, saving organizations money. "The cloud delivers scaling at low cost ... the cloud allows the workload to vary from large to small as you need capacity," explained HP executive Russ Daniels. The public sector is already beginning to see the fiscal advantage of cloud computing; Arizona State University (ASU) saves more than $500,000 a year using Google Apps for its e-mail service.

  • Increased Storage

    A basic but essential benefit to cloud computing is that organizations can store more data than on private computer systems. Large service providers such as Amazon and Google have more hardware, allowing those in the public sector to increase the amount of data they can maintain. ASU's previous e-mail service, for example could only store 50 MB per person, but this number has increased to 6 GB since the school adopted Google Apps.

  • Highly Automated

    No longer do IT personnel need to worry about keeping software up to date. ASU's University Technology Officer Adrian Sannier experienced this benefit firsthand after adopting Google Apps. When Google created new features, such as a detailed calendar and Google Talk, ASU automatically received these services without having to install any updates. "Working on a cloud level," Sannier said, "the pace of improvement is staggering."

  • Flexibility

    Cloud computing offers much more flexibility than past computing methods. When individual lines of business maintain their own stovepiped systems, they are often not cost-efficient, don't work with the organization's other systems and become obsolete within a short period of time. Andy Blumenthal, director of enterprise architecture and IT governance for the U.S. Coast Guard, explained, "With cloud computing, there is the possibility of obtaining systems more flexibly, on an as-needed basis, and then modernizing once better technology is available."

  • More Mobility

    Cloud computing provides another kind of flexibility as well. Washington, D.C.'s CTO Vivek Kundra recently implemented Google Apps and has begun other cloud projects. He appreciates that employees can access information wherever they are, rather than having to remain at their desks -- a benefit that is significant for the younger workforce. "The next generation of workers will be mobile. By investing in the mobile force, we can attract some super-smart people," Kundra said.

  • Allows IT to Shift Focus

    No longer having to worry about constant server updates and other computing issues, government organizations will be free to concentrate on innovation. Vance Checketts, general manager of EMC Corp.'s Mozy online backup business, said CIOs "can focus on building great applications for their organizations" rather than focusing on countless maintenance details.

The Bottom Line

Despite all these benefits, cloud computing still raises security concerns in the public sector. Public organizations and government agencies, particularly in defense and law enforcement, may be reluctant to let important data flow outside their own firewalls. California Public Utilities Commission CIO Carolyn Lawson explained, "We have a responsibility to the public trust that's on a different level than the private sector."

However, the public sector won't likely give up on cloud computing just yet. Despite possible security and privacy risks, the benefits are too great to ignore. As Blumenthal stated, "rather than dismissing cloud computing because of the inherent risks involved, we should work to overcome them so that the government can more readily adopt it."

David Raths  |  contributing writer