By Tan Sian Lip, Vice President Solutions and Consulting at Crimson Logic, Singapore | Apr 12, 2011
(Based on an interview with eGov Innovations on cloud computing for the public sector)
What attracts the public sector to cloud computing?
Cloud computing is a term used very loosely to refer to any kind of service that is offered over the Internet. From that perspective, many organizations have already been using cloud computing for decades. Many electronic government services have also been in that sense cloud computing services. Why is that attractive? Because it's more convenient and available all the time. You don't have to worry where the computers are, you just worry about the service and you pay a subscription fee to use the service. It is an idea that has currency and governments see its benefits as the Internet becomes increasingly pervasive.
In the tighter sense of cloud computing, there is a difference between cloud computing technology and cloud services. You may say that technology is offered as a service but a lot of it is tied up with the nature of the technology and it has changed a lot in recent years. Previously you can offer services in the cloud without making use of cloud computing technology. It is highly virtualized and highly automated and thus, delivers a set of values to the end customer. For cloud computing services that fall into the category of Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), it gives you a pay-as-you-go, buy-what-you-need type of service. So it is very flexible from a financial standpoint and very agile. It allows organizations a lot of operational flexibility and if you know how to configure your systems it could also provide you very high availability.
These are the various reasons you might want to use cloud technologies. You could say that cloud computing is the right way to do infrastructure. Nobody should build infrastructure for large sectors like the public sector the old fashioned way anymore unless you don't really have the networks to support the remote access of the cloud. With the aggressive rollout of telecoms infrastructure worldwide, areas that are unconnected will shrink over time.
Inherent road blocks
What is stopping the public sector from adopting cloud services? I think the concern over confidentiality, security and integrity of data are key issues, which brings a whole lot of authentication management issues. In a sense you might view this as outsourcing because cloud computing is inherently borderless, and possibly offshoring as well. Thus, all the concerns related to government outsourcing and offshoring apply.
Where's the data? It may not even be in the country. So even if you are the government you can't even say I want it back. The provider could say that you can have it back but how would you know that they won't keep a copy? You never quite know so data sovereignty is yet another set of problems.
I don't think regulation of cloud service providers has taken off yet. Public cloud service providers typically will not allow clients to come on site to their data centers to inspect or to have proprietary levels of security. That is generally not accepted practice in public cloud provider space so how can they live up to this burden of trust?
Similar concepts were applied to healthcare. Electronic medical health records contain data which are very sensitive that a person may not want his employer, his family or the public to know. How do you keep that from going out and whose word do you rely on? So all these are questions regulators cannot escape.
I think the people who design the service that will reside in the cloud must take into consideration how sensitive the data are and what would be the consequence for the loss of that data.
Public, private or hybrid cloud?
Generally speaking public sector services are on a private cloud. E-Governance services are run on private infrastructure. However, since most companies or providers run cloud services for the government in their own infrastructure, is that public or private? Of course it is private because nobody is allowed to use it except the government. It is not public in the sense that it is run by a private entity. So this type of public-private partnership arrangement does not fit the usual definition of public cloud right now.
Emerging trends in 2011
There is a lot of innovation going on at the touch points of the cloud, especially in the mobile and semi-mobile space. That's going to vastly increase the number of people and the richness of the services that can be provided.
As security improves, the level of comfort governments have, especially in the public cloud, will increase.
A private cloud operated on behalf of many local governments I think will be pretty much accepted practice. It will be very hard to imagine or envision local governments continuing to buy computers just so they can run their own things because they don't trust the infrastructure to connect them to the cloud.
The march of telecom technology is relentless and very fast and driven by consumers. Naturally, the government will also enjoy the benefit of falling telecom connectivity costs and that will drive increasing use of cloud-based services.