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How governments can benefit from cloud computing

Ganesh Margabandhu
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Cloud technology standardises and pools IT resources and automates many of the maintenance tasks done manually under traditional or client/server model of computing.

Ever since the term e-governance became popular a few years back, governments around the world are trying to introduce technology into how they function and deliver services to citizens. Their primary motivation: to deliver information and services more easily, widely and transparently to the people.

While the Internet really accelerated the adoption of e-governance through the establishment of various portals and websites as means to connect directly with the people, a new development has taken root recently that can bring the ultimate vision of e-governance much closer to reality in a way that is efficient and manageable more than ever. It is called “cloud computing.” By its compelling cost-benefits and quick-and-easy adoption, it has already taken the enterprise world by storm. And now, it is set to make a huge difference to how governments function, deliver citizen services and run towns and cities.

The cloud and how it works

Put simply, cloud computing is a new way of looking at how people and organisations buy, consume and pay for IT. Traditionally, if an individual or organisation wanted to buy, say, an external hard disk drive for storing data such as files, pictures and videos, they would make a one-time payment — just like for any other product — use the disk until it was full and then go buy another one and so on. In the cloud computing model, they can pay a third-party provider for storing their data — and pay according to the amount of storage required and the length of time for which data needs to be stored.

Take another example. The old way of performing an analysis of data such as previous years’ sales records or consumers’ purchase patterns was that the company requiring such analysis would purchase and install a business intelligence (BI) software on its own systems and use it for analysis whenever it wanted. The new, cloud computing way does not require upfront purchase and installation of a BI software; instead, the company can specify its analytics needs to a cloud solution provider (CSP), which would run the analysis on the company’s data on its behalf. The provider would charge a fee for this “service.”

Cloud computing is thus a comprehensive solution that delivers IT as a service and simplifies IT infrastructure without sacrificing customisation and integration capabilities. Computers in the cloud are configured to work together; the various applications use the collective computing power as if they are running on a single system.

In other words, cloud computing is a category of computing solutions in which a technology or service lets users access computing resources on demand, as needed, whether the resources are physical or virtual, dedicated, or shared, and no matter how they are accessed (via a direct connection, local area network or LAN, the Internet, etc). The cloud is often characterised by self-service interfaces that let customers acquire resources as long as needed.

Cloud computing scores over traditional IT in that it is more efficient and flexible, and enables better collaboration among users, departments and organisations.

Governance challenges

Governments today are confronting serious challenges that affect their economies and their abilities to deliver core services to their citizens. They are faced with the harsh realities of swelling city populations that demand more services, aging infrastructure, declining budgets and increasing threats. As such, they are constantly looking to adopt ways and technologies that can help them address these challenges:

Rapid Urbanisation: According to the United Nations, over half the global population lives in urban areas, and city planning officials are faced with critical decisions of how to deal with these swelling city populations. Countries such as China and India are expected to surge in urbanisation, with cities in China growing from 40 per cent to 70 per cent of its total population by 2050. Indian cities are expected to grow from 30 percent in 2007 to 55 per cent of its total population during that same period.

Addressing the multiple needs of a huge, rapidly growing population requires painstaking planning, preparation and resources. Whether it is finalising the housing development plans, connecting more people to basic utilities such as water and electricity, or providing them a mechanism to highlight their grievances, the government — and its various departments — must provision resources in a way that waste is minimised and benefits to the common man as well as the government are maximised. At the same time, the resources must be allocated swiftly so that people are not underserved or the infrastructure is not over-burdened.

Given that governments, at least in well-urbanised places, use ample information technology to conduct various functions (such as procurement, loan sanctions, metering, etc), moving their current IT to the cloud would greatly benefit their attempt to meet the demands of urbanisation. This is because, essentially, cloud technology standardises and pools IT resources and automates many of the maintenance tasks done manually under traditional or client/server model of computing. By adopting the cloud model, governments can free up a lot of time and human resources to focus on increasing their roster of services or devising even better delivery mechanisms.

Financial pressures: With multiple regions in the world either facing financial crises or reeling under economic downturns and low GDP growth, governments are under increasing pressure to deliver their services within ever-tighter budgets and resources. In several places, increasing taxes or other means of revenue generation seem unlikely, so they are being forced to do more with less.

Cloud computing offers great advantages in terms of immediate as well as long term cost savings for governments. Because it offers services on a “pay-as-you-go” and “pay-per-use” basis, there are no upfront costs involved in buying IT equipment. The savings can indeed come in handy in these financially-challenging times.

Globally, city and municipal government leaders recognise the importance of cloud computing to tie budgets directly to service consumption and to lower upfront capital costs when compared to a traditional deployment. According to a survey by the U.S.-based Public Technology Institute (PTI), 45 per cent of local governments in the U.S. are using some form of cloud computing. PTI reported a common reason for local governments to turn to cloud was for resource savings (for example, staff time, maintenance and support costs). A former United States Chief Information Officer also estimated, in his Federal Cloud Computing Strategy, that by using a cloud computing model, U.S. federal datacentre infrastructure costs can drop by 30 per cent, amounting to approximately $7.2 billion in total savings. In India, too, adoption of cloud computing in large projects such as the Aadhar project of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) and employment schemes under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) can result in significant cost savings for the government.

Technological obsolescence: One of the sore points of information technology advancement for several organisations, including government agencies, is that due to the shortening upgrade cycles and constant launch of new products and technologies, there is a great risk of technology getting obsolete sooner rather than later. At the same time, sticking with the same old technology for years on end, without going in for timely upgrades, runs the risk of being left behind in competence, capability or capacity.

Thankfully, cloud computing comes to the fore in tackling this dilemma. It puts these risks in the bucket of the provider rather than the user or the user organisation. Since computing services, not products, are delivered in cloud computing — and since the delivery time and quality of services are regulated by well-defined SLAs or service level agreements — government agencies adopting the cloud can rest in peace as far as tech upgrades are concerned. All the related software and hardware upgrades are done at the end of the CSPs.

On the contrary, users of cloud computing can remain at the cutting edge of technology because most CSPs have to keep their data centres and systems not only up-to-date but running as efficiently and securely as possible for a simple but compelling reason: they must stay competitive in the market. And the market for providing cloud services is growing, with more providers entering the fray every few months.

Besides the above, cloud computing can help governments resolve many more challenges related to efficient, timely and massive delivery of services to citizens in every part of a geography.

By connecting the people with their governments directly and providing a platform for sharing complaints and redressing them, Internet has proven that e-governance makes eminent sense in today’s age of increasing transparency and growing consumer and citizen awareness. Cloud computing can further take the process reforms and benefits of e-governance several notches up by providing a faster, easier and more cost-effective platform that can be used by multiple government agencies to share ideas, pool resources, and collaborate with each other to take concerted actions — instead of the piecemeal or secluded approach that can delay the delivery of citizen services.

Indeed, cloud computing can be the foundation on which governments can create a more trusting environment for e-governance while reaping the benefits of huge cost savings and efficient, easy delivery mechanisms.

The writer is General Manger, Global Technology Services, IBM, ISA

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