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The Cloud Is More Than Cost Savings (Opinion)

For state and local governments, cloud computing — when done right — enables flexibility, scalability and the ability to share and integrate systems.

Editor’s note: David F. McQueeney is vice president of technology and strategy and chief technology officer for IBM’s U.S. Federal Government unit.

Smart government leaders know that driving change in their world often takes a different approach than in the commercial enterprise. A government executive’s mandate for a critical technical standard can become an effective force to drive broader transformation. Federal CIO Vivek Kundra clearly understands this, and while the move to Internet protocol version 6 (IPv6) is one of the driving thoughts at the heart of a September memo from Kundra, the memo is also helping to drive an important and very beneficial movement toward cloud computing. The federal government’s exploitation of cloud computing is projected to grow by at least 40 percent over the next several years — a trend that is happening at the local government level too. Done right, the benefit can be the seemingly contradictory outcome of systems that cost less while also being more robust and enabling rapid integration and evolution.

Cloud computing was on most government agencies’ radar before September, of course. The move to the cloud is driven by many powerful forces. Complexity of systems is rising. Budgets are tightening. Data center capacity is near the breaking point. And while modern systems are clearly designed around a post-PC architecture, current licensing terms on many PC-class systems force the government to buy licenses for functions that are poorly used, if used at all.

Through the explosion of tablets and mobile devices, the emergence of cloud computing, and rise of the Internet itself as a computing platform we can see all the elements of the post-PC world every day. Yet many government entities continue to devote a large percentage of their IT budgets to PCs — on activities ranging from management to security to backup and recovery.

Current government IT systems and their associated procurement models have not been able to resolve these conflicting pressures. But the technical and business-model characteristics of cloud computing have tremendous potential to do just that. By aggregating and sharing disparate computing resources, from networks to servers to storage, it is all about how to do more with less, faster. It is scalability. It is more intelligent licensing in the post-PC era. It is also a practical model focused on managing technology amid constantly fluctuating demands.

Cloud computing, implemented properly, eliminates the risk of becoming locked into an IT system that is difficult and costly to reshape when technological change and new administrative requirements force systems to evolve in both design and implementation. Environments in cloud computing are adaptable. They are shared. They have an elasticity that is baked in to their architecture. And in today’s hyper-complex, hyper-speed IT universe, they are typically, pay-as-you-go. If you don’t use it, you don’t pay for it.

Perhaps most interestingly, a cloud computing architecture can be designed to share a common operating environment across many mission processes, allowing that environment to be built in a way that is more secure, scalable and robust than the hundreds or thousands of one-off operating environments that have been deployed in the past.

Foundation for Greater Innovation

Cost reduction is a compelling reason to consider moving to a cloud computing model, but other important benefits are significant and must not be ignored. Cloud computing has tremendous potential to open the door to better decision-making based on real-time data and lay a strong foundation for greater focus on innovation at every level of government.

The cloud computing approach to resource sharing saves money, but interestingly facilitates higher-level integration of disparate systems, making it much simpler to achieve complex mission requirements. Today, governments are constrained by systems designed using dated architectural models. Paradoxically the procurement model that was designed to save money and drive effective implementation of individual systems has become the enemy of systems with a more modern design, where core compute, network and storage infrastructure is shared.

Harnessing the scale, flexibility and computing power of cloud computing will enable federal agencies to rapidly access and analyze large volumes of data, and quickly implement new analytics. Insights from this big data will enable breakthrough abilities in areas such as identifying waste, fraud and abuse in social services programs, conducting more comprehensive health-care outcomes research, running military simulations, constructing global climate models, or even predicting and managing real-time traffic patterns.

The transformational potential of cloud computing extends well beyond the Beltway. Particularly at the state and local levels, hundreds of agencies with similar missions are constantly re-inventing the wheel using increasingly stretched taxpayer money, and there is little of the information sharing that would help drive quality of services and encourage innovation.

The property tax process is a good example to examine a little more closely. Tax processing spans multiple departments, including building, assessment, tax and finance. Each department typically maintains its own applications, and information sharing is frequently manual. For example, municipal departments typically have to transform their data by hand into a form that the finance department and its software program can accept and understand. With a cloud-based platform, information can flow between the applications, all running on the same operating environment. Much of the manual work would be eliminated, resulting in faster, more accurate service.

Public safety is another area that is already benefiting from cloud computing. Integrating police, fire and court applications where appropriate provides faster and more accurate access to necessary information. Linking with clerk and assessor applications can give firefighters or ambulance attendants important and potentially life-saving details about home schematics, registered weapons and pets.

Integration can take this benefit even further. There are countless opportunities to improve services through properly integrated information that provides valuable insights to both government employees and the citizens they serve. Frustrations quickly arise when lack of information or bad information leads to long waits and confusion in such activities as registering students, identifying and signing up for social services or requesting permits. Imagine integrating disparate systems and presenting relevant information that matters in an online portal that enables self-service. Citizens and taxpayers would find it easier to interact with their government and government workers can use the insights to provide better services to their customers. Without cloud computing, the sharing of data and IT infrastructure needed to achieve this would be prohibitive.

The list of possible applications could go on as the potential value of cloud solutions line up nicely against many things government does. Over time, cloud’s contributions will add up and government can operate better through delivering higher value services with less cost, and greater efficiency and agility.

This is a critical moment. It’s time to take a hard look not only at obstacles in the way of getting government tasks done as well as possible, but also at the risk that a job won’t get done at all. An increasing integration of cloud computing into federal, state and local IT can begin to change the psychology of the mission/IT ecosystem, creating the expectation that IT is the key to making things easier, the critical enabler of agility, and not an impediment to change. Increased use of cloud computing in federal and local IT efforts will also ease and speed integration, drive innovation and deliver tangible value to citizens.

A movement toward cloud computing begins to build in a continuing demand for more smoothly functioning, integrated systems. It creates higher standards: greater connectivity, greater transparency. The growing use by government will also make taxpayer dollars go further. But it is not just about better IT. Cloud computing can also radically transform how — and how well — government works.


Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.