Public Sector in the Cloud? Preconceptions, Stories and the Reality …

Government building

In this post, I’ll give you an overview of randomly selected Public Sector Cloud initiatives and successful projects. Believe it or not, things are happening at this corner of the market, too – although not at the speed of light as with SMBs, but it’s fair to say that they are still moving at the speed of sound, which is a surprise to many of us …

I speak to people on a regular basis about the Cloud opportunity in Public Sector. Many of them agree, then step further to the next topic by saying that it’s impossible to move things with the government – let’s talk about something else instead, they say … Now, hang on for a minute and watch out what’s happening as we speak …

What’s So Special with the Cloud in Public Sector?

The Cloud opportunity delivers different benefits to different sectors and different organisations, being cost reduction and agility the common themes. In large Public Sector (rather silo) organisations, the main themes of Cloud are consolidation and transparency of costs, increased efficiency of utilising what they’ve already got and the agility to respond to change (such as natural disasters, economy changes, new rules/regulations or a re-org of several departments into one). While pressure to reduce costs and improve efficiency in public sector is not as strong as in Enterprises, agility is still a priority. For governments, the bottom line and the best business case for Cloud though is that by being more efficient with time and resources and spending less efforts and money when responding to change, Public Sector organisations buy time to improve things and make things better for citizens – in other words, they gain the ability to “innovate”. Some would argue that by working more efficiently, employees can have longer breaks – and I agree with this point of view. What I press though is that the Cloud opportunity in the hands of the right leader is what makes the difference. The Cloud opportunity driven by a technical council will remain a simple cost reduction project and will lose the agility and innovation bits, because the top leadership is not aware of this capability of their organisations.

Govern or Not Govern?

If you look at some of the silo Cloud solutions below, you might agree with my thesis that sooner or later, Cloud Computing will be used by the government for many initiatives. The question is, whether it will be used in a governed, controlled manner or as a tool for silo and tactical, organically grown solutions. Both options work fine as you’ll see below – but I’d prefer to give the choice to the department or to the government to decide which one they choose – while it’s not too late.

Common Themes of Successful Public Sector Initiatives

Below, you’ll see a few examples of how public sector organisations harnessed the benefits we discussed above – or in other words, how they turned these generic ingredients (cost reduction, agility and ability to innovate) into an advantage. In other words, these scenarios will give you a flavour of how the Cloud has been used in practice in several cases. As with electric power, 70 years after its invention, there are still surprising ways to apply this innovation (for example, to transmit data over a power grid) – this is no different with the Cloud. As you’ll see, some of the more successful Cloud initiatives looked at the Cloud as (just) an ingredient and evaluated it towards strategic goals to focus on its best use scenarios. In the other hand, Public Sector organisations who try to define what the Cloud is and try to figure out how it works, go nowhere. The key to success is to ask yourself: “how can I use the Cloud to make the world a better place?”

The List

  • The following is an example where organisational agility was a critical factor – where the government used the Public Cloud (Windows Azure) in a silo solution to respond to a disaster. After the Great East Japan Earthquake, central and local government offices have launched many programs for the people suffering from and struggling with the devastated situation. As data has been dispersed, citizens and even the local government officials have been facing difficulties in finding which programs to target or consume to or by whom and how to reach them. The government swiftly decided to address the situation – but also acknowledged that they can neither rely on local infrastructure nor delay the resolution due to limiting technology factors. Soon, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) launched the “Recovery and Reconstruction Support Program Portal” (http://www.r-assistance.go.jp) for individuals, companies, and local government officials who are seeking the latest support programs for the sufferers of the disaster. Programs, organized by central, local government offices and volunteers were aggregated by this web application. People could search the information by region, goals, categories, etc. This web-based government service has been developed and launched within a remarkable 2-months idea-to-launch period and it’s a perfect example for agility and cost efficiency in the public sector. It demonstrates how the government can respond to situations quickly using the Cloud and leverage data being replicated in multiple countries in case further events happen.
  • The following is an example for an efficient use of the Public Cloud for significantly reducing the CAPEX costs of a short-lived initiative: In July 2011, the Romanian Ministry of Education launched its high-school exam results website in the public cloud (Windows Azure). The Ministry gained ample processing power, eliminated downtime and avoided spending $100,000 USD for a comparable on-premises infrastructure. This initiative is similar to running national elections or processing tax returns – recurring projects, end-to-end, no longer than a few weeks or a couple of months and require significant investment or upgrade costs at almost every occasion. In the private sector, Pixar Studios realised that instead of keeping a large number of servers to render a new cartoon movie title, they can provision an even larger number of virtual servers using the Public Cloud (Windows Azure) for significantly reduced costs and processing time. Back to a Public Sector initiative, the London 2012 Olympics used the Cloud to run the Torch Relay nomination website for only a few weeks to allow members of the public to nominate torch bearers to carry the Olympic Torch. Purchasing the server capacity for this few weeks period would have been a waste of money. The Cloud allows one to provision a huge capacity in a matter of minutes, use it, give it back and pay only the resources used – by the hour.
  • An example of a more strategic (less tactical – less silo), well-governed application of Cloud Computing is NASA’s Nebula (Private-Cloud) project to instantly acquire super computing powers to support the calculation of a tornado’s path. In 2009 NASA began work on developing a supercomputing resource as a form of its own cloud computing initiative. Nebula was established to revolutionise the work of scientists studying space as well as scientists studying conditions on Earth from space. Projects in these categories earlier required significant amount of investment, planning and re-structuring of IT infrastructure to support productive work. As a result of the Nebula project, scientists are re-thinking their strategies to process, share and store large datasets with the advent of this technological advancement. One of the early adopters of this technology were NASA’s „Short-term Prediction Research and Transition Center” (SPoRT Center) who ran a project to help scientists identify damage scars left by storms that devastated central and northern Alabama in 2011. SPoRT provides unique NASA research and remote sensing capabilities to the National Weather Service and other members of the operational weather forecasting and analysis community. Numerous near real-time products from MODIS aboard Terra and Aqua and other satellite imagery from partners contribute NASA derived data sets to support regional weather forecasting applications. SPoRT recently provided unique NASA observations to support forecasters in assessment of the event in order to compare remotely sensed damage tracks against data acquired during ground surveys in the weeks following the disastrous April 27th Alabama tornadoes. With its “instant on” IT infrastructure, Nebula afforded SPoRT researchers bandwidth when they needed it most. Nebula gave them the chance to get access to super computing powers while “playing in a sandbox” where testing and experiments were easy and fast, and could be used without disrupting other local systems. Nebula has assisted staff meteorologists in calculating the path length and width of tornadoes in areas where rough terrain or limited road networks make other observations difficult.clip_image002
  • The following is an example for well-governed cost reduction and increased efficiency in delivering Public Cloud-hosted services (Office 365) to end-users. Many of the union agencies accross the USA have moved to Cloud-based services, such as email, voice, video conferencing and data sharing to use for their everyday work. For example, in the state of MN, all agencies are part of this initiative. The initiative has already proven its cost efficiency by only taking the cost reductions in storage and the avoidance of upgrade costs paid off the project’s costs. In terms of agility, member agencies no longer support mail servers, they are moving closer to supporting the “business”. While reducing Operations headcounts has never been a desire or goal, this initiative helped many employees to move into more „profitable jobs” from their previous operations roles. The Cloud costs are charged back to business, making these costs transparent to participating unions.
  • There are examples of countries building national Cloud infrastructure, dedicated for the government. In France for example, the French government supported the „Andromede” project to build a national Private Cloud for the government. This is an example of a strategic Cloud project, where the country leaders decided to create their own Cloud infrastructure to consolidate existing data centres. Russia is also building a national Private Cloud platform. Telecommunications Minister Igor Schegolev says “the rollout of Russia’s national cloud platform is one of the top priority areas for the development of the domestic IT industry. The signing of the agreement between national telecommunications operator Rostelecom and Microsoft, the largest global IT company, will become a serious stimulus for the rollout of Russian cloud applications. “The signed agreement will make it possible for us to make the most efficient use of Microsoft’s rich experience in developing software and implementing cloud technology in the most various spheres of activity, including the setup of an Electronic Government in Russia”, said Rostelecom president Alexander Provotorov.

Some of the initiatives above are silo solutions, while some others are part of a large strategic government Cloud initiative. A Cloud strategy and governance establishes rules and practices to make end-users avail of Cloud services and capacity when they need it. A well-established Cloud strategy shortens the bureaucracy around provisioning these powerful resources, gives more autonomy to the right individuals to instantly access the capacity they need and therefore, allows the department to realise all the benefits of Cloud Computing: cost efficiency and transparency, agility and ability to innovate. However, looking at results, I wouldn’t undervalue the two silo solutions above, either …

Conclusion

Public Sector Cloud initiatives will remain cost reduction projects if they are sponsored and driven by an IT leader. Driven by a higher political authority (a Minister for example), the Cloud opportunity in Public Sector can result into being a catalyser for agility and innovation all across the board. So, the question to a successful Cloud initiative is: “what can I do with this thing [the Cloud] for my government’s and for the citizen’s benefit?”.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think!

Linkedin David Szabo, Cloud Strategy Advisor, Intrapreneur, Firestarter and Rulebreaker at Microsoft. Startup-addict, SaaS & Cloud consultant, blogger at http://cloudstrategyblog.com and LEGO serious play facilitator. Follow me on Twitter!

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9 Responses to Public Sector in the Cloud? Preconceptions, Stories and the Reality …

  1. Pingback: Public Sector in the Cloud? Preconceptions, Stories and the Reality … | MSDN Blogs

  2. Pingback: Windows Azure Community News Roundup (Edition #20) - Windows Azure - Site Home - MSDN Blogs

  3. Pingback: Windows Azure Community News Roundup (Edition #20) - Windows Azure Blog

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