December 21, 2011 By Brian Heaton
As more people go online to see polling results on Election Day, the increased traffic can wreak havoc on IT infrastructure not designed for huge spikes in demand. But experts agree that the cloud is starting to gain momentum for hosting those sites, due to the belief that the cloud is more reliable and can upscale quickly to avoid crashes.
Andy Pitman, industry solutions manager for Microsoft, said in addition to the technical benefits of the cloud, by not maintaining expensive infrastructure for a capability that’s only used sporadically each year, using cloud technology for elections reporting and results can also save governments money.
“This turns out to be, at least from what I’ve seen, one of the very best scenarios for government cloud computing," Pitman said. “This truly is a situation where the resources probably wouldn’t even be used except for the period of the election. So we’re talking about one day or a handful of days. The rest of the time it sits around pretty much idle.”
Terry Weipert, senior executive with Accenture, a management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company, agreed. Weipert said if states aren’t moving their election results websites to the cloud, they should be.
“Think about the retail industry and the folks that have retail portals doing secure transactions at key times — that is working,” Weipert said. “So why wouldn’t we do whatever it is they are doing for elections results?”
Start of a Trend?
Microsoft’s Azure is one of the major cloud platforms that states are considering for hosting election results websites. Pitman said the company has partnered with BPro Inc. to combine the latter’s Central Election Night Reporting System with Azure. They plan to roll it out first in Vermont. According to Pitman, the plan is to conduct the test in January 2012 and then use the system during Vermont’s primary election later in the year.
Vermont may be the first state to use Microsoft’s Azure platform to bring its election results to the cloud, but it likely won’t be the last. Pitman revealed that since Microsoft connected with Vermont, five other states have expressed interest in jumping to the cloud for their own election result websites.
Kim Nelson, executive director of e-Government for Microsoft U.S. Public Sector, said it clearly marks a trend that should continue indefinitely, primarily due to financial and technical efficiencies the cloud provides specifically to elections results.
“It’s really no surprise that elections officials were among some of the first to jump on the bandwidth and see the advantage, because that infrastructure gets used rarely most of the year,” she said. “But when it’s used, you need to make sure it’s reliable.”
Risk Still Present
While using the cloud for election results websites might sound like a good idea, not every state has had luck with the process. The California Secretary of State’s website crashed on Nov. 2, 2010, due to overload from people surfing in to check the latest numbers.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the state was using a cloud system with more than 50 servers outside the Secretary of State’s office to manage traffic. Despite that redundancy, it still went down. The agency’s spokesperson told the Times that the Web traffic “basically blew up the cloud.”
Pitman conceded that there could always be failures no matter if a system is on premise or in the cloud. However, even in offices that have a central IT organization running a cloud environment, the major cloud providers still have a huge advantage in regard to ensuring reliability and uptime, he said.
“They are still not doing it at the scale that Microsoft, or frankly our competitors like Amazon or Google are able to do it,” Pitman said. “We’re doing it at scales that are orders of magnitude greater.”
“I think it’s pretty clear our level of reliability is much greater than pretty much any state or county IT organization is going to be able to provide,” he added.
Nelson said public-sector organizations would be hard-pressed to provide the type of performance larger cloud providers can deliver. She pointed out that there could be other reasons for crashes, such as poor application design. But she was confident no state could match the capability to scale up on-demand on short notice.
Comparing cloud and non-cloud platforms, Weipert didn’t see much difference in regard to risk. Weipert emphasized that it all comes down to preparing for the level of traffic and managing resources properly. She said that Accenture has managed the IRS.gov Web portal, which has a need for redundancy and for scaling up and down. The IRS site really can’t have any downtime.
“You have to manage for [demand],” Weipert said. “I think the cloud environments allow for really strong audit mechanisms and tracking and tracing.”
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