Cloud is the new normal
Published on December 14
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Widespread use of mobile devices and powerful personal computing have driven a major shift among organizations of all types to adopt scalable, cost-efficient cloud computing infrastructure. Cloud computing allows for greater speed and flexibility than was ever thought possible, ushering in a new era of productivity and innovation in the public sector.

Government agencies are proving they can nimbly keep up with changes in their fields by adopting cloud technology. “Many government use cases are large-scale data systems that run well on clouds,” said Judy Qiu, assistant professor of computer science at Indiana University. “I expect the use of clouds to grow in the public sector as the convenience, economy of scale and flexibility become more attractive.”

Indeed, cloud services are becoming the new normal across public and private markets. “Amazon Web Services [AWS] really revolutionized the way we can get access to computing power. With the cloud, computing power and storage can now be consumed like electricity in an on-demand fashion,” said Tim Kraska, assistant professor of computer science at Brown University.

Agencies that buy cloud services through a pay-as-you-go model gain online access to technology resources that are managed by experts, with no upfront costs and payment for computing resources only as needed. This approach lets programs meet their mandates in more innovative ways, and helps them move faster and reduce costs.

“There are a number of use cases for the cloud that many public sector organizations are finding attractive,” said Dave Shackleford, lead faculty at IANS Research in Boston. “A huge benefit of cloud for the public sector is the ability to shift applications and infrastructure to a much more modern environment, helping to alleviate the legacy platforms and systems that many government agencies and other public organizations have been saddled with for a long time,” Shackleford said.

For example, the Food and Drug Administration has achieved scale and cost-effective innovation by using AWS to turn manual reports from consumers into machine-readable information with 99.7 percent accuracy, reducing costs from $29 per page to $0.25 per page. And Healthcare.gov is a salient example of how cloud migration can completely transform a public service to make it work more efficiently.

Jon Booth, director of the Website and New Media Group at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said Healthcare.gov deployed AWS to launch services that were “stable, reliable and produced a streamlined experience that got a couple million people coverage through the last open enrollment period.” With Healthcare.gov, “we knew that we needed to have a smooth launch [and] a scalable solution.”

During the transition between the program’s first open enrollment period and the second, Booth’s department focused on managing extreme traffic spikes during open enrollment, in addition to maintaining system security. “We wanted to make sure that we could roll system changes out very quickly, and have that agility that we needed. The desire for moving to cloud was to be able to scale up and scale down the systems,” particularly during open enrollment periods with high traffic days.

Booth found that as the initiative moved to a cloud computing environment, resources were not limited by procurement time. “When using AWS, we have room and capacity to experiment, to try new things and decide if we want to roll them out to production. And because of cost efficiencies, we are able to run more compute resources in AWS than we were ever were in the traditional data center model.”

Another major driver for cloud deployment in government, education and nonprofit organizations is data security. “With more options available in the cloud that meet public sector compliance and security requirements, IT teams can now safely move workloads into cloud environments with assurance that their data is safe and carefully controlled, and that they won’t risk violating compliance and regulatory requirements,” Shackleford said.

Sue Gordon, deputy director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, said her agency has adopted cloud infrastructure technology “and now we’re going to put it to a test.” In government, deployment “is a balance between speed and accuracy…between national security and civil liberty, between unclassified and classified. With the help of partners like AWS, I cannot wait to see what we do.”

Agencies that use the cloud are more likely to promote a culture of innovation. Mark Schwartz, CIO of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at the Department of Homeland Security, said that “by using the public cloud and setting up these continuous delivery systems, we can make the cost of an experiment so small.” And a culture of experimentation results “by reducing the risk and reducing the cost of trying experiments…people start to release all these creative ideas.

“By setting up this super-fast pipeline that takes us from concept to production…we can move things at the speed of thought.”