Cloud Computing Is No Easy Fix

Companies have been pitching the cloud as a virtual field of dreams that can help make storage issues and server problems disappear. But is that true?
by | July 2011

It was a clear Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2009, a day that may go down in history as a turning point in the rise of public-sector cloud computing. On that day, in the historic art deco Los Angeles City Hall building, council members voted unanimously to shift about 30,000 city workers from the city’s cranky, old e-mail platform over to Google Apps. It was an epic move, making L.A. the first major jurisdiction to migrate its entire enterprise to Google’s Web-based e-mail and other office tools.

The five-year, $7.25 million contract with the Internet search engine giant emerged after months of fierce opposition from rival Microsoft and arguments from council members, who weren’t sure if the move would actually cut costs or whether the system could store sensitive data. But such fears didn’t deter Eric Garcetti, the tech-savvy city council president who shepherded the measure through the vote.

“There are some potential pitfalls and great upsides to being an early adopter because this is a brand-new space,” Garcetti says. “To be on the cutting edge, cloud computing has to be a part of your strategy in order to serve constituents and employees in the most efficient manner possible.”

Since L.A.’s move, several state and local governments have had their heads in the cloud, tantalized by the prospect of improving services and spending less. They imagine a world without maintenance and ownership, where IT teams could focus on projects rather than repairs. The attraction is mutual. Companies big and small have been pitching the cloud as a virtual field of dreams that can help make data storage issues and server problems disappear: Shut down those ancient server rooms! Stop purchasing so many software licenses! Reduce IT maintenance costs!

Cut through the hype and the hard sells, and you’ll find the story behind the story: The cloud is no easy plug-and-play fix. In reality, agencies that adopt Web-based solutions must overcome the same hurdles that lie on the path to any enterprisewide IT implementation. With the market still in its infancy, governments can’t afford to overlook changes in technology or challenges with security. Issues like privacy, change management, standards and compliance are common concerns, but variables such as levels of service and the specific requirements of each government make a one-size-fits-all approach impossible.

It is relatively uncharted and heavily technical territory. But as the cloud movement continues to expand, policymakers like Garcetti play a pivotal role as a bridge between the IT professionals and the public. By separating facts from fiction, they can help spearhead cloud strategies in state and local governments. “Policymakers need to dispel fear and downplay exaggeration,” Garcetti says. “The cloud is not going to do more than what it does, but it also isn’t going to make anything fall apart.”

The concept of “the cloud” predates the Internet. Sources trace the idea back to the 1960s, when John McCarthy -- the renowned computer scientist who coined the term “artificial intelligence” -- suggested that “computation may someday be organized as a public utility.” The notion popped up again in the early 1990s, when telecommunications companies started offering virtual private network (VPN) services to better manage bandwidth. In the early computer network diagrams, the Internet was also depicted as a literal cloud.

In its current context, the cloud is shorthand for cloud computing, where customers have secure access to a variety of Web-based software programs (e-mail, budget tools, collaborative software), as well as significant data storage capacity, all available on demand from any network device. The resources, however, reside in a remote data center, usually managed by a third-party firm. Rather than purchase computers, networks and software -- and hire the necessary staff to run and maintain them -- cloud customers lease the services they need. Corporate giants like Amazon, Google and Microsoft have charged into the arena headfirst, renting out server space to thousands of companies. In recent years, with governments caught in economic turbulence, the cloud has come to represent a beacon of cost-cutting possibilities, with the federal government out in front.

In September 2009, United States CIO Vivek Kundra launched, an online procurement vehicle featuring federally certified software. In a blog posted to the White House website, Kundra called a “one-stop source for cloud services -- an innovation that not only can change how IT operates, but also save taxpayer dollars in the process.” In a move partially attributable to the surge in cloud computing, the feds expect to close 800 of roughly 2,100 data centers by 2015. This spring, the General Services Administration (GSA) issued a solicitation for a $2.5 billion contract to become the first federal agency to adopt a cloud solution for e-mail.

“It’s been a long vetting process with both industry and our customers,” Bill Lewis, the director of cloud computing at GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service, told Federal News Radio in May. “The key is we did a lot of market research and we did a lot of discussions with agencies.”

Across the country, policymakers have been keeping a close eye on the private sector and the feds, but they’re not waiting around. Cloud solutions have been popping up everywhere from Minnesota to Orlando to San Francisco. In Klamath County, Ore., a scattered onsite system and a budget pinch drove the IT department to implement Microsoft’s Business Productivity Online Suite, a set of messaging and collaboration tools delivered as a subscription service.

But state and local governments should take precautions or they may end up wasting money on bad service and solutions doomed to fail, according to David Cottingham, senior director of telecommunications and managed IT services at CDW, a software and solutions provider. The key is to “avoid the mega-project trap,” he says, and instead approach cloud adoption in steps: Identify the application that will be the easiest to transfer, figure out the potential savings, see which vendor has a solution that fits and test it out. Policymakers can help by detecting areas that might benefit from Web-based solutions. But rushing into the cloud because it’s the new “it” thing could lock an agency into a partnership that might do more harm than good in the long run.

“Last year, there was a lot of frenzy that took place,” says Gail Thomas-Flynn, vice president of state and local government at Microsoft. “People thought it was an easy solution and you flip a switch and go to the cloud. Now people are a lot more measured in their approach.”

Every silver cloud has a dark lining. Amazon found that out the hard way in April when technical glitches rattled its Web servers and caused major websites to crash or suffer severe slowdowns for days. The country’s biggest online retailer traced the problem to its northern Virginia data center. The domino effect took down about 70 sites -- including such communities and tools as Reddit, Foursquare and HootSuite -- that rent space on Amazon’s massive cloud hosting service.

For some critics, this significant failure proved that a shift to the cloud is premature and will only lead to disaster. Others recognize the incident as a reminder to design for failure, which means clients need to set up applications that can still run independent of technical difficulties at the data center. Back-up and recovery plans are critical due to the many moving parts in the cloud, according to Lydia Leong, research vice president in Gartner’s Technology and Service Providers group.

“Any one of them going wrong can bork [block] your entire site/application,” Leong wrote in a post on Gartner’s blog. “Your real problem is appropriate risk mitigation -- the risk of downtime and its attendant losses, versus the complications and technical challenges and costs created by infrastructure redundancy.”

These lessons also apply to state and local governments. Policymakers need to be paying attention to the failures and successes of the cloud in the private sector to understand both the risks and the rewards. Asking questions early in the process can help prevent a devastating reality check down the line, says Rosa Akhtarkhavari, Orlando’s chief information officer and chief security officer. Where does the data reside? How secure is it? What are the back-up plans?

In the wake of L.A.’s announcement, Orlando adopted Google Apps to replace an aging legacy system in December 2009. Akhtarkhavari admitted that research was essential because guidance was limited. For policymakers, she recommends identifying standards and creating an oversight committee.

But following all the steps won’t keep governments from running into trouble. L.A. is a prime example. Since becoming a government cloud pioneer in 2009, the city has hit a few speed bumps as Google has struggled to meet security requirements. Google and its partner, Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC), missed two key deadlines that caused the L.A. Police Department to delay its move onto the cloud, according to an internal memo obtained by the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog.

“CSC and Google’s behavior goes beyond a mere failure to communicate in a timely manner and instead, on several occasions, has risen to the level of misrepresentation,” said the memo from L.A. Chief Technology Officer Randi Levin.

Due to the snags, city council members considered pursuing legal action earlier this year, but in May sources said the move was unlikely. Concerns about data encryption have made it harder to get police departments to even consider a move to the cloud. But no matter what happens in L.A., Garcetti says, one thing is clear: At its best, the cloud illustrates the power of collaboration.

“Cloud computing underscores how dynamically technology is changing,” he says. “It’s very difficult for governments to keep up with that in-house.”

How to Get Into the Cloud

William Eggers, global director of public sector research at Deloitte who coined the term “Government 2.0,” tells Governing that state agencies should adopt cloud services in four steps:

1. Develop a cloud strategy tailored to your state. Cloud computing is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Tailor it to your specific environment to garner the greatest benefit to your organization.

2. Start small with non-mission-critical applications. Develop a business case for a simple pilot project and follow it closely. Plan, measure and evaluate costs and benefits before, during and after implementation.

3. Gradually expand utilization of cloud computing. As government moves to more strategic services, be conscious of the implications of cloud computing on employee workflow and business processes.

4. Bring other government entities into the cloud. The big benefits from cloud computing will come from numerous state, higher education and local entities all sharing a common computing platform.