The potential and the implications

According to Gartner’s technology trend forecasts, cloud computing will be mainstream within two to five years, but at the moment many people are still unclear about what it is and what it can do for them, particularly in the public sector. A colleague recently attended the local Mayor’s Dinner with a newly-elected councillor and spent the whole evening explaining the concept of cloud to the other guests, including the leader of the council.

Increased uptake
There is a growing interest and uptake in the private sector, particularly amongst small businesses where there are obvious benefits: it allows them to cut costs, reduce IT requirements, offer flexible working, trade internationally and improve business continuity and disaster recovery policies. In effect, it levels the playing field in terms of access to technology and software – it’s no longer prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to source, buy, and implement.
The public sector, however, has been slower to respond to the promise of cloud, despite the fact that there are big wins to be had here too; the whole concept of cloud makes complete sense for any big organisation where several people in different locations need to have access to the same data and share information. The other obvious advantage is the cost savings; again, any big organisation with large numbers of people using computers has to spend big chunks of its budget on software licences and upgrades, hardware and maintenance. Cloud computing gets rid of the need for in-house servers, software upgrades and therefore a large part of the maintenance, and licences are replaced with low-cost monthly subscriptions.

The issue of security
Probably the biggest issue, however, for the public sector is security, and this is probably the biggest advantage. In the cloud, all data is properly encrypted, managed, stored and hosted in secure data centres, where everything is automatically backed-up. Yes, many people can access the data, but who has access and how can be centrally and properly managed, and controlled by passwords and encryption – and because nothing is being stored locally, data will no longer have to be transferred between PCs and laptops, and left on trains or lost on memory sticks. Organisations like the Business Application Software Developers Association (BASDA) have already issued charters and best practice guidelines to makes sure that everyone in the industry is providing the best and latest security measures that are available.
The final benefit is that streamlined and consolidated resources, less computer hardware, and less paper means that cloud computing is also a greener option.
Cloud’s biggest problem, however, is that because it’s so new and is moving and developing so fast, it’s difficult to actually pin it down with a definition. On a very basic level, “cloud computing involves vendors supplying computing services to lots of customers over the internet”. It brings together different internet technologies and developments under one umbrella and offers a new way of delivering IT services. The key, though, to understanding why it’s so different and is a truly “disruptive technology” rather than just another IT fad is to understand how it has developed in the first place.

Traditionally, new technology is created to satisfy a demand or to solve a problem for a particular consumer or market. However, cloud computing has emerged because the developments in broadband, hardware, and web technologies have come into alignment creating huge new potential, which has in turn fired the imaginations of developers and programmers.
In simple terms, we now have widespread high-speed internet access, cheap powerful processing power, new web-based programming tools and platforms. Combined, these mean that the internet can be used for much more than just browsing and shopping.
This is why we’ve seen an explosion in social media, iPhone apps and all those annoying games on Facebook, as techies around the world explore and play with all this new potential. The ultimate example of this is Twitter, which was created without any clear purpose or even any way of making money. In spite of this it has caught on virally and become a tool used daily by millions of people.
The upside of all this experimentation is that cloud has arrived fully-formed and in a much more advanced state than new technological developments usually do. This is great news for users as it’s less of a risk and there aren’t going to be years of testing, tweaks and refinements to get it right.
The other consequence of this is that cloud is a true disruptive technology – “an innovation that improves a product or service in ways that the market does not expect, typically by being lower priced or designed for a different set of consumers.”

Hindering development

Cloud computing will eventually replace our existing desktop ways of doing things in the same way that trains came along and replaced canals as a mode of transport. Canals had been the dominant mode of transport but trains brought time and money-savings and greater efficiency that quickly rendered them obsolete. Ironically, the arguments put forth by the pro-canal, anti-change lobbyists are exactly the same as those being put forward by the anti-cloud people today, 200 years later – “It’s too limited” “It doesn’t work the same” “I don’t understand it” “It’s not safe”.
The fact is though, we’re not just talking about a minority activity here and it’s not just about geeks creating Facebook games and iPhone apps. The main players in cloud computing who are driving it forward are Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Amazon and Oracle and the new big name cloud companies like Salesforce, and NetSuite. Big business is sitting up and taking notice – Coca-Cola has recently created its own internal cloud and migrated 100,000 employees onto it in just two weeks. This highlights one of the main benefits of cloud; traditionally implementing such a major technological change would have taken anything up to a year.
Microsoft is in the process of making a fundamental shift and moving its whole operation into the cloud; making the giant leap from a wholly licence-based model to a wholly subscription-based model. This means that in the very near future, we’ll no longer buy Microsoft Office and install it onto our laptops and computer, and have to upgrade every few years. We will simply login to Office from wherever we like whenever we like.
The advantage to Microsoft of this model is that everyone will always be using the same version of the software and whenever a patch or upgrade is released it will be instantly available to everyone using Office anywhere in the world. The fact that Microsoft are taking cloud seriously and putting their money where their mouth is proves that it’s not just a fad and that it is a serious technological development.

The Public Sector
So what does all this mean for the public sector? There is now a whole new way that IT services can be accessed and delivered that can cut costs, enhance efficiency, streamline processes, and give secure and confidential access to key data to anyone who needs it.
The three areas of cloud that you need to be aware of are SaaS (Software as a Service), IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service), and PaaS (Platform as a Service). All these areas are “as a Service” because you don’t buy anything but subscribe (normally monthly) and pay for what you need, as you go – you can change or cancel your subscription whenever you like.

Creating cloud applications

PaaS is basically the tools that are available for developers to create cloud applications. Many of the bigger companies are now creating their own cloud platforms, such as Microsoft’s Azure and Google’s App Engine that allow developers to create their own bespoke cloud software that integrates with their standard software. For example, you could create an appointment or booking system that integrates directly with Outlook or a report writer that integrates with Excel.
SaaS is, essentially, software delivered over the internet and subscribed to on a pay as you go basis. The big advantage here is that it’s not dependent on what sort of computer you’ve got, which model and which operating system and you don’t need any IT expertise to install or use it. As long as you’ve got access to the internet, it should work.
You will already have come across or may even be using SaaS (without perhaps even knowing it). The most common examples are the blogging platforms that are now being used to build flexible and interactive websites and business and social media sites such as LinkedIn, and Office-style products like Google Calendars, Google Docs, Gmail or Hotmail, and Google Maps.
The most established and evolved SaaS business software are CRM (customer relationship management) systems and online accounting software, as these areas have been leading SaaS development. This is because SaaS makes it easier to share data and information, both of which are essential in big organisations with large teams needing to access the same customer or client records, or where procurement, billing, payment collections and credit control might all be done by different departments. In the private sector, the government has been driving developments in SaaS by bringing in compulsory online filing of accounting and company documentation, and creating electronic gateways.

Build, access and store

IaaS is the infrastructure or hardware that developers use to build, access and store your cloud. Developments in this area have created the breakthrough that has made cloud possible and viable, and this is probably the area of most interest to the public sector. Five years ago, cloud was already possible and people were starting to build cloud apps (and the most established online accounting and CRM companies have all been around for about five years or more), however, the cost of hosting something like a big government cloud would have been prohibitive. However, new developments in virtualisation software have made it not only cheaper but much, much simpler.
Traditionally you would have had to buy a server and upgrade it every couple of years or when you needed more storage space – this would be both expensive and time-consuming, and there would always be a risk that something would be lost, forgotten or corrupted. Now, however, you can now build a virtual sever environment within a data centre where hundreds of servers are being managed at the same time. This means that you can make copies or replicate your virtual server at any time, quickly and easily, and can therefore, change expand, or reduce your capacity depending on demand. This is a great benefit for the government, for example, who has traditionally had huge problems with servers crashing due to increased demand at key times. Rules can be set so that your servers morph and change automatically to respond to needs.
It also means that you can easily move data from one place to another within a few seconds, and that the risk of down-time is negligible as there will always be back-ups copies and extra capacity. Possibly most importantly though, your virtual server will always be running on the latest systems without you having to do anything.

Here and now
In conclusion then, cloud computing isn’t the future – it’s now. For governments and other public sector organisations looking for cost savings and efficiency improvements, it offers a realistic option with multiple benefits.
The US and Taiwanese Governments are already embracing cloud to reduce expenditure, and the UK Government is following closely behind. They are proposing to create the GCloud and save in excess of £3 billion per year in IT costs by consolidating the hosting of its entire infrastructure from hundreds of server farms to just single figures – a model which smaller public sector organisations would do well to replicate.

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