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Questions about moving to the cloud? We have answers.

Editor's note: Medhat Galal is director of Appian Corp.'s Center of Excellence. This article was published in the January issue of Government Executive magazine.

As policies from the new federal chief information officer, Steven VanRoekel, become better known, cloud computing technology is proving more important than ever. VanRoekel has pledged not only to continue the Cloud First policy established by his predecessor, Vivek Kundra, but also to expand it with an additional initiative known as Future First.

Business process management and other applications delivered through the cloud speak directly to VanRoekel's requirement to maximize information technology investments. Moreover, the cloud increases collaboration and the use of shared services.

Federal agencies that have taken the plunge and adopted shared services are ahead of the game. For the rest, here are some answers to the five most nagging questions about how the cloud can improve efficiency while reducing expenses.

Are cloud applications really superior to enterprise solutions? Federal managers have concerns about the ability to guard against security breaches in shared applications that require extensive testing, accreditation and certification. Consultants and contractors developing enterprise applications provide a certain level of validation through testing. Because there can be no variation on security levels among agencies, much more rigorous tests are conducted on cloud applications to meet the highest standards of compliance.

Is my data secure and recoverable? Data security in the cloud is less costly than creating a secure environment for IT infrastructure on premises, which organizations otherwise invest in heavily. Enterprisewide backup is built into service level agreements between cloud providers and their customers. Data is regularly backed up, reducing concerns such as disaster recovery. In most cases, recoverability of data is as good as or better in the cloud than in an organization's own enterprise IT infrastructure.

Are cloud applications really easier to implement? The biggest bang for the buck in cloud-based applications is not economic efficiency. Rather, it has to do with how fast a project can be started.

A typical IT procurement in government can take months and involve a great deal of expense and a range of acquisition concerns. What kind of hardware must I buy? Is that hardware is sufficient for my agency's needs? Can I get this hardware from my preferred vendor? Add to these concerns the time required for quotes, pricing, installation, setup and testing. Time, material costs and human resources outlays can quickly skyrocket.

In the cloud, these challenges are mostly eliminated. Capacity can be scaled on demand without additional downtime. Consequently, the time involved in launching and completing a project via the cloud is orders of magnitude faster than anything agencies can attempt on their own.

How do shared services reduce overall IT costs? The cloud is particularly cost-effective when it comes to upgrading applications across an enterprise. In the traditional software model, there is the initial outlay, development and quality assurance costs, and additional expenses related to changing IT infrastructure to support enhancements. These traditional software expenses often become so cost-prohibitive that some IT organizations abandon enhancements, and their investments languish as "shelfware."

In the cloud, upgrades and new features are provided on a regular basis. The costs of maintaining a particular software program or piece of hardware are no longer a consideration.

How can the cloud reduce expenses for adapting technology to a dynamic workplace? The cloud is changing the way people buy software, offering economies of scale not otherwise available. In a traditional seat-licensing model, introducing software can be costly because the minimum number of users required sometimes is greater than current needs. With the subscription-based cloud model, agencies buy whatever level of service their budget can afford. Operations can be stood up on a small budget and grown quickly as needs dictate. That is not possible in a conventional licensing arrangement.

It's clear why cloud computing and shared services are becoming essential to the federal government's plans to transform not only IT, but customer service overall. Agencies that compare what cloud providers offer against their needs will find that the cloud surpasses anything they can accomplish with their current IT infrastructure.

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