Problems in April with Amazon’s cloud computing platform sparked media questions about cloud computing’s readiness for prime time. The well publicized incident on April 21 brought down a number of websites, including news aggregator Reddit and Q&A site Quora. Ultimately, though, the incident is unlikely to slow government’s adoption of the new computing technique.
Government CIOs have been wary of moving their data and software applications to Internet-based cloud services run by private companies, often citing concerns about reliability and security of systems over which they have little control. But wide adoption of the technology and the desire to control costs is gradually breaking down public-sector resistance.
Indeed, CIOs who gathered in Washington, D.C., for the National Association of State Chief Information Officers’ Midyear Conference in May ranked cloud computing among their highest priorities in an onsite poll taken by the organization. The Amazon incident did little to dampen their interest.
“Did it give us pause for a minute? Probably,” says Michigan CIO David Behen. “But quite frankly, the whole idea about security around the cloud is something that we just need to educate more people about. The private industry is using the cloud for everything, and government needs to embrace that.” Behen’s recession-wracked state has been a leader in sharing computer systems among state agencies and between state and local entities. Behen sees cloud computing as a tool for sharing technology resources on an even broader scale.
Behen and others may be ready to move forward on cloud computing initiatives, but they say that the Amazon incident also holds lessons for public agencies moving data and computer applications to the cloud. The new computing model puts a premium on choosing reliable cloud contractors, since agencies depend on them to host websites, store data and run computer programs. It also demands more attention on contract terms that hold contractors accountable for outages and performance problems.
Despite their enthusiasm for the cloud, CIOs still are carefully weighing what can be hosted in the cloud and what belongs in-house on government-owned computers. Oregon, for instance, relies on cloud companies to host its public data-reporting website and an internal collaboration site for state employees. “But that’s a different story than putting very sensitive data that you need immediate access to in the cloud,” says state CIO Dugan Petty. Effective backup plans and good service-level agreements with contractors will be keys to using the cloud effectively, he says. “If you can’t live with the consequences of the cloud being down, then that’s a potential problem.”
In that regard, it makes no difference whether government agencies run their own computer systems or offload some tasks to Amazon, Google or other cloud providers. CIOs readily acknowledge that no system is 100 percent reliable; effective backup and recovery plans must be in place despite how and where governments operate their technology.
In fact, the Amazon outage provided a dramatic example. While the incident knocked out a number of websites, it was widely reported in the IT press that Netflix, which hosts its video streaming service on Amazon’s cloud, weathered the ordeal just fine, thanks to smart application design that anticipates unexpected problems and overcomes them.
Perhaps the biggest lesson to be learned is that moving to the cloud doesn’t relieve agencies from ensuring public services and programs continue operating in spite of the inevitable technological hiccups. “Bad things are going to happen,” says New Hampshire CIO Bill Rogers. “What’s important is how you take care of your customers when they do.”