The cloud and the public sector - water and oil?

Ovum – Public sector CIOs should look to the leading cloud computing providers for insights into architecting the next generation of government IT infrastructure as an agile whole-of-government utility – rather than creating outdated, inflexible shared services and outsourcing arrangements.

The emerging logic of cloud computing

Public sector agencies are not immune to the pressures being placed on all organizations this year to cut costs and boost operating performance. The flurry of economic stimulus spending under way across the globe might create the appearance of 'spend, spend, spend' by government, but the reality is that governments themselves are being beaten by the hammer of the economic crisis.

This climate of austerity is likely to get a lot worse before it gets better. CIOs need to be on the front foot with ways to make a step change downwards in their day-to-day IT costs – before the CFO cuts their IT budget anyway.

Cloud logic and public sector IT management

Discussion of cloud computing in the public sector often revolves around agencies putting applications on platforms, such as Amazon EC2, or using applications such as Gmail or Salesforce. Concerns over data sovereignty, privacy and control over public data in the cloud, naturally enough, tend to kill these discussions before they gain much of a head of steam – at least for anything but niche applications.

We need to move beyond this 'at-the-margins' thinking and explore the applicability of cloud logic to the core operations of government IT. In essence, cloud computing is the holy grail of utility computing – the ability to treat IT as a ubiquitous, on-demand service and flexibly consume as much, or as little, as is needed. This is made possible by virtualizing applications from hardware so they can scale, architecting applications as multi-tenant web services and simplifying the way users access applications via the Internet.

Cloud computing is about re-conceptualizing the boundaries of how IT is delivered. Computing that used to operate within the boundaries of a single machine, or within an organization’s IT infrastructure, can be performed within the infrastructure of an organisation operating at a global level. Cloud computing delivers the power of massive global infrastructure to anyone, regardless of location.

By a curious coincidence, most governments are in the midst of a parallel process of re-conceptualizing the boundaries of their IT organisations – moving away from regarding IT as an agency-by-agency issue and looking at ways to consolidate, rationalize and standardize IT on a whole-of-government basis to reduce costs. The ideal is to deliver efficient applications and IT services to any public servant, regardless of their agency or location.

A step change beyond earlier outsourcing and managed services approaches to IT

The required transformation of government IT is much more about changes in governance, organization and culture than it is about technology – and we all know this to be gruelling work. Governments may, however, be making it harder than it needs to be by using 'old paradigm' tools, such as enterprise architecture, common applications and shared services.

The major IT services vendors are making massive investments in cloud computing research and infrastructure because they see the emergence of global IT utilities as the future of the industry. CIOs should be tapping into this emerging body of knowledge and exploring ways to architect the next generation of government IT infrastructure using cloud logic. Governments should understand when and where to leverage the cloud and how to create agile public sector clouds – not just a rehash of outdated, inflexible shared services and outsourcing arrangements.

Steve Hodgkinson is director of government practice at Ovum.

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