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The Stack Archive Expert View

Cloud Computing for Government and the Public Sector.

Tue 5 Jul 2016 | Michael Mudd

Cloud Computing is transforming large scale enterprise systems in the private sector and is well ahead of the public sector in most of Asia. Why is this?

The Cloud, like so many concepts is not entirely new, but rather a confluence of existing and new technologies.  An excellent primer has been published by the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, UC at Berkeley, (see http://www.eecs.berkeley.edu/Pubs/TechRpts/2009/EECS-2009-28.pdf ) but as with any academic report it, can get a’ bit complex’, so here I would like to address a somewhat simplified outline of Cloud Computing and its application to government.

Before we can address what it may do, we really need to understand what Cloud computing is all about, after all we have the Internet isn’t that the Cloud? SAP for example, described the Cloud simply as the ‘Future Internet’. The CEO of Oracle said that Cloud computing is just ‘a redefinition of what his company already does’, (although Oracle has since embraced the public Cloud), while Open Source advocate, Richard Stallman cautions about proprietary IP concerns via the Cloud.

So it’s not quite so simple. The elements of the Cloud have been gathering for a while; the long held dream of computing as an ‘on demand  – always available ‘ service, is a promise that like electricity, you turn it on and turn it off and get charged for your exact consumption. A neat idea after all we don’t all own a power station (yet – but personal solar is gaining in many countries) but we all want ubiquitous, reliable and overall, cheap power, can we get that with computing also?

Dr. Peter Mell and Tim Grance at NIST[1] have defined Cloud computing as comprising five distinct components;

On-demand self-service. A consumer can unilaterally provision computing capabilities, such as server time and network storage, as needed automatically without requiring human interaction with each service’s provider.

Broad network access. Capabilities are available over the network and accessed through standard mechanisms that promote use by heterogeneous thin or thick client platforms (e.g., mobile phones, laptops, and PDAs).

Resource pooling. The provider’s computing resources are pooled to serve multiple consumers using a multi-tenant model, with different physical and virtual resources dynamically assigned and reassigned according to consumer demand. There is a sense of location independence in that the customer generally has no control or knowledge over the exact location of the provided resources but may be able to specify location at a higher level of abstraction (e.g., country, state, or datacenter). Examples of resources include storage, processing, memory, network bandwidth, and virtual machines.

Rapid elasticity. Capabilities can be rapidly and elastically provisioned, in some cases automatically, to quickly scale out and rapidly released to quickly scale in. To the consumer, the capabilities available for provisioning often appear to be unlimited and can be purchased in any quantity at any time.

Measured Service. Cloud systems automatically control and optimize resource use by leveraging a metering capability at some level of abstraction appropriate to the type of service (e.g., storage, processing, bandwidth, and active user accounts). Resource usage can be monitored, controlled, and reported providing transparency for both the provider and consumer of the utilized service.
Grid computing, as promised by major vendors, was to enable the linking of mainframes/servers with essentially dumb work stations (no processing, no storage) clients to centralize processing and storage, and was thus component one and two of the above. This was initially on relatively expensive leased line connections and really was a combination of applications and storage, with usually ownership of programs/apps being with the same vendor.

However, the difference with the Cloud is the ownership of the disparate parts and the application of ‘on demand ‘computing to the equation, via the ubiquity of the Internet. The Cloud addresses the sort of problems that plagues for example public transport systems; one of matching capacity with demand at any particular point in time. In order to cater for peak hour demand – the rush hour – transit systems typically have to own a greater number of buses, trains, etc than they actually need for their overall 24 hour traffic load; they can scale, but don’t have elasticity to manage demand any other way, a lot of them are parked. Ideally their infrastructure would evenly run at 100% capacity over a full 24 hour period. This however is not practical, hence overcapacity/under-utilization of their investment leading to an increased fixed capital base that has to be paid for by the public and amortized to recoup high capital costs.

With information processing however this may be addressed differently by using a now common, underlying ‘on demand’ infrastructure – broadband or high speed Internet – which may be accessed by multiple customers – both private sector and public, simultaneously in a multi tenanted environment that is highly scalable.  Each user accesses applications and storage either directly (Private Cloud) or through a hosted contract with a vendor (or vendors) and uses applications on the public Cloud model.

Examples of this are SalesForce.com whereby not only users, but usage is charged on a distinct unit basis, they have also recently outsourced their hosting to Amazon Web Services (AWS) freeing up resources to focus on their software. In the non IT world, NetJets provides a similar service for the use of private aircraft; the use of the asset but not the ownership based on a time/usage billing system.

The Cloud therefore is the realization of the past promise of grid computing being delivered as a reliable, scalable business – but focuses on tasks and outcomes that may be used by IT consumers seamlessly in the same manner as desktop or server computing. The objective being the user does not need to worry about the technology, but just runs their business as usual without the ownership costs of the apps and storage. The concern to date has really been around security and the other side of that coin, privacy.

Security

It is important to note that the Cloud actually increases overall security since Cloud has an additional layer of security from the vendor, overlaying you current security management. The current position in many environments is one of weak internal physical security controls and people being human; lose USB sticks, CDR disks, tablets, cell phones, laptops etc on a regular basis. There are many cases where this has been a significant issue in the real world.

From a software security perspective, typically, firewalls and anti-virus software are the main defence, but this is imperfect and often inventories of hardware and software are not kept up to date. Add in BYOD, mergers and acquisitions in the private sector and department consolidation and shared services in the Public, that means that software security is a movable feast and hard to manage.

One basic characteristic of Cloud computing is that the storage is taken off the client premises; the responsibility for security is something that is down to the cloud service provider. This reduces the opportunity for both physical loss of data, and since the data is backed up by the CSP, it can always be found. For example, the loss of a laptop may involve loosing non backed up data; a Cloud service means that does not happen as the data has been backed up at the moment of creation. Thus risk may be better managed using a cloud service.

Vendors collaborating

Collaboration between vendors is further enabling the elasticity of the underlying infrastructure. However such collaboration may lead to interoperability issues unless standards are agreed upon and the resulting API’s made available under a RAND or royalty free basis.

Amazon’s AWS and Microsoft’s Azure platform both contain easy to use API’s that enables applications to be accessed and delivered that reside in the Cloud in combination with an enterprises current local systems. Such a hybrid may have application with government legacy systems or where there are strict data residency requirements for sensitive data.

Take up in Asia

According to a recent IDC survey of IT executives in the Asia-Pacific region, 41 percent said they were using or evaluating Cloud based services such as SaaS, but 17 percent said there were currently insufficient Cloud services to make the platform a compelling option.  More than 50 percent of respondents using such services said cost cutting was the main reason behind their adoption of Cloud computing so they could reduce their fixed infrastructure costs.

Another research firm, Gartner also noted that the absence of any license costs in advance for SaaS apps may be attractive, but total cost of ownership may be more expensive over time since the costs are usually constant throughout the product’s lifecycle.

Availability is dependent on the physical Internet structure and its addressing systems, in particular as we move over from IPV4 to IPV6, as well as the reliability of the service providers of the SaaS apps.

Issues specific to Government

Apart from the forgoing, which is applicable to both the private and public sector, government has additional demands in that its IT systems are part of the ultimate cultural history of the nation. In addition, government has to interact with both citizens and business in formats and protocols that do not overly add an additional burden or expense.

So with respect to storage capability, it is probable that for critical lifelong data storage, that government will continue to manage their own data centers for essential records; land titles, court records and census and statistics.

Experts featured:

Michael Mudd

Managing Partner APP LLC
Asia Policy Partners LLC

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