Seven tips for journeying into the cloud

What you should know about cloud computing and how to start.

There's been a lot of talk about cloud computing as a way to deliver open government, reduce technology costs and increase flexibility for an organization. But when it comes to putting it into action, that part is, well, a little on the cloudy side.

What are the different delivery models for cloud computing? And what's the best way to get started? I'll break down the basic benefits of cloud computing, how it's deployed and what to do next.

Benefits of the Cloud

Cloud computing is gaining ground at exactly the right time. If your agency is like most, you're facing a squeezed budget, shortage of skilled workers, lengthy acquisition cycle and costly maintenance of legacy systems. You simply can't afford the capital outlays of yesteryear. Cloud computing can be a solution, delivering services that are nimble, flexible and interoperable.

With cloud computing you don't have to rely on equipment and data centers to deliver applications to your agency, process data and provide storage. Instead, you can buy capacity outside your agency from someone else's information technology infrastructure, or what's called the cloud.

For example, you can move network management tasks from your staff and facilities to the cloud host's work site, paying only for the storage and processing power you use. Need to retain data longer than expected? Instead of buying new hardware and backup equipment and hiring more staff, you can purchase an elastic pool of resources whenever you need them.

Advantages of the Cloud

--Less complexity and cost

--Access to new applications

--Flexibility and scalability

--On-demand network access

--Business continuity

Cloud computing also makes it easier to access and manage new technology, because you can tap Internet-based applications instead of buying or building on your own. These applications are always up to date, eliminating the need to purchase and install software upgrades. Since clouds provide on-demand network access, you can tap into your organization's systems from anywhere, using virtually any Internet-ready device. In addition, there's no need to load software on your computers or station IT personnel in data centers. And when it comes to disaster recovery and business continuity, cloud computing promises better redundancy and long-term reliability.

If these benefits aren't compelling enough, then consider this: If you want to receive funds from the fiscal 2012 federal budget, you might be required to explore cloud computing and report how you did so to the Office of Management and Budget. So there's your call to action. Now what?

How Cloud Works

When you think about cloud computing, look at three service delivery models.

1. Software as a service. An Internet browser provides on-demand applications. There's no need to install, run or maintain programs on your own computers. Example: The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is using a suite of cloud-based products to optimize human resources shared services.

2. Platform as a service. An environment for software development, storage and hosting is delivered as a service over the Internet. Example: Los Angeles is moving applications for 30,000 employees to the Google App Engine, a platform that lets the city build and host Web applications on Google's infrastructure with no need to maintain servers.

3. Infrastructure as a service. Infrastructure that traditionally has been provided by servers, desktops and network equipment is delivered over the Internet and can be scaled up or down as needed. Example: Minneapolis outsourced its IT infrastructure to Unisys, reducing costs while freeing up personnel to provide better services to the public.

These models can be deployed through different clouds:

1. Public cloud. A third-party provider uses the Internet to offer services such as applications and flexible storage to the general public.

2. Private cloud. This has the same benefits as a public cloud, but access is restricted to personnel in a particular organization. In what is sometimes called a community cloud, a group of organizations with common interests can share a private cloud.

3. Hybrid cloud. This is a combination of a public cloud and a private cloud. You might outsource low-sensitivity information to the public cloud while retaining business-critical services on a private cloud.

Getting Started

To deliver these services, providers such as IBM and CSC Corp. and high-tech firms such as Google and Amazon are building massive clouds. The marketplace continues to expand. But keep in mind that cloud computing, for all its promise, is not quite a plug-and-play solution. Otherwise, everyone would be doing it. Instead, cloud computing, like any sourcing option, requires careful analysis and planning. Consider these steps for moving to the cloud.

1. Review your agency's applications. How might they work in a cloud? What would be involved in making them Internet-ready? If you have noncritical applications that require dedicated infrastructure but are used infrequently, consider outsourcing these to a cloud platform, while focusing in-house IT resources on mission-critical functions. Or, if you have a slate of applications as part of an Enterprise Resource Planning platform, those might run well on a cloud, which could help reduce infrastructure costs and improve users' access to organizational tools.

2. Start with a pilot. Cloud computing could be a way to handle sudden spikes or overflows in computing demand. To try it out with a pilot, work with an adviser to identify what in your agency's workload can be transitioned to the cloud in the near term, and then use these quick hits to evaluate the benefits, build support and develop a roadmap for migrating other services to the cloud.

3. Plan for transitional costs. Despite the cost advantage, you'll still need to invest in the transition to cloud computing. Preparing custom applications to run on the cloud, for example, will be a labor-intensive activity, and you also might have to support legacy applications that can't run on the cloud. In addition, the full implementation of cloud computing can be an expensive, multiyear transition for large departments.

4. Plan for additional costs. Beyond the transition, carefully consider what other costs could arise. For example, should you include support costs for cloud applications? If these aren't included in the deal, you might have to build this capability internally, or purchase it as an additional service.

5. Assess the risks. Cloud computing, like other sourcing strategies, has its risks. As you explore ways to allow public participation and provide transparency, you should rethink how to protect the data. If you outsource data storage to a cloud beyond agency firewalls, could it raise the risk of it being compromised? How will a service provider's security measures affect your compliance with, say, the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which requires organizations to secure personal medical data, or other regulatory guidelines? There also are risks that could affect performance. Leasing space on a cloud, after all, means you're dependent on someone else's capacity. Downtime, even if it's scheduled, will directly affect your access to resources.

6. Plan for change management. Cloud computing is still an emerging technology and might not be widely understood by all. For example, your constituents and internal customers suddenly will have instant access to servers, storage and computing platforms, all of which were once controlled by the IT office. This change will require education of both parties.

7. Select the right service provider. To achieve your goals and manage risk, it's critical to choose your provider carefully and to draw up an effective contract. For instance, how do you design and enforce service-level agreements? What would happen in the event of a planned or unplanned outage? How are the service provider's fees structured? Are there hidden costs for support and other services? Once data moves to the cloud, who owns the information? What are the risks and rewards of an open-source environment?

These are important considerations for federal chief information officers -- and they're just the beginning. Cloud computing, though ripe with potential to transform government IT, also is loaded with challenges. It might not be right for everyone. Like any sourcing solution, cloud computing requires proper planning and efficient execution to ensure it delivers savings and the needed performance. As you assess your environment, work with someone who understands your IT architecture and requirements, can explore the costs and benefits of different delivery models, and build the case for change.

Glenn K. Davidson is the executive director of public sector for EquaTerra, a global information technology consulting firm.