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Public-sector cloud computing: The good, the bad and the ugly

As state and local governments look to the cloud, everyone can learn from agencies' struggles with compliance and ingrained cultures.

By Howard Baldwin
May 9, 2012 06:00 AM ET
public-sector cloud

Computerworld - When the second-in-command of one of the most technologically advanced states in the country slams public-sector computing -- publicly -- it's a resounding wake-up call.

"Don't underestimate how far local, state and federal government is behind [in computing]," said California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom at a tech conference in Silicon Valley earlier this year. "We have to wake up to the new reality."

The new reality Newsom was referring to is cloud computing -- a versatile way for government agencies of all sizes to solve a variety of technological issues relating to cost, human resources and the ability to respond quickly to constituents' needs. Many government agencies are doing just that -- albeit in limited areas, such as email and data center consolidation.

But overall, progress is slow: Federal agencies are struggling to comply with the U.S. government's "cloud first" mandate, and state and local government entities, which tend to be less well funded, are even further behind.

As noted by CIOs and technology vendors at the TechAmerica conference on public-sector computing in February, the cloud allows government agencies to decrease their costs and deploy systems more quickly -- all good news. And as in the private sector, cloud computing can enable public entities to devote fewer resources to day-to-day tasks like maintenance, so they can focus on more important things, like improving services and increasing innovation.

But there's also bad news -- and some ugly realities -- when it comes to cloud computing in the public sector. Current and former public-sector CIOs say it can be difficult to drag government agencies forward. It remains to be seen whether government CIOs will be able to convince politicians and bureaucrats that cloud computing is the antidote for the financial and technological doldrums they're experiencing.

The state of the state (and the county, and the city...)

A March 2012 survey conducted by Government Executive magazine, co-sponsored by Cisco Systems, found that government entities significantly lag behind the private sector when it comes to cloud deployments.

The report's findings were based on responses from 429 government executives and managers in 10 countries, as well as responses from 808 private-sector executives. Of the government executives who responded, only 12% said that more than 10% of their agencies' overall annual IT resources were allocated to the cloud in 2011. While researchers expect those percentages to grow by the end of this year, even doubling them wouldn't represent a significant move to the cloud.

A more-optimistic 2011 survey by Red Shift Research put the penetration of cloud computing in the public sector at 23%, compared with 42% in the private sector.

Either way, Thom Rubel, an analyst at research firm IDC Government Insights, concurs that the cloud computing adoption rate is lower in government than it is in the private sector.

He says that's primarily due to the fact that government agencies have to comply with more stringent security and privacy requirements. Moreover, Rubel says he believes that government agencies are still in the "data sorting" process -- that is, they're trying to figure out what kind of information can go into the cloud. Right now, "you can put 3-1-1 informational services in the public cloud, but you want to keep tax and revenue data in a private cloud," he says. Within the next three years, he predicts, we'll see government agencies figuring out how to best take advantage of the cloud.



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