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Government Tech

Cloud computing: finding the silver lining

Working in a political office means I am privy to the sorts of sales pitches that lobbyists, industry and community groups are constantly pushing on politicians. It can be weird, informative, amusing and at times plain scary, and I’m really valuing the critical thinking subject I took at University to help me better assess everything that comes my way ๐Ÿ™‚

Anyway, seeing my passion and expertise is around technology, I do try to keep across what is happening as much as I can. Most of the big ICT companies are pushing the cloud computing pitch extremely hard, but I’ve found the moment you ask many of them questions about privacy, data portability, data export & archival, open standards, interoperability and issues of jurisdiction, just to name a few, they seem to baulk.

I think there are certainly a lot of opportunities in ‘the cloud’, but I think there is a lot of hype around this topic and I wanted to jot down a few thoughts that I think people should take into consideration when looking into cloud computing strategies. This is not a highly technical overview, but rather a bit of a mythbuster for those without a technical background to help in navigating the hype.

Sam Johnston pointed out to me earlier tonight a useful basic approach to ensuring you get an open cloud service which provides for the interoperability, portability and strategic control you want to maintain when moving to the cloud. If you have any good resources about cloud computing, please add it to the comments ๐Ÿ™‚

I also strongly recommend you read the Open Cloud Manifesto which talks about this issue in greater depth, and touches upon other elements to consider when moving to the cloud.

Where is the cloud?

The term cloud computing came from the idea of services being delivered over the Internet, because the Internet has traditionally been representedย  on network diagrams as, you guessed it, a cloud. Some people use the term as the new SOA (and for all those who had to deal with the onslaught of SOA hype, you may enjoy http://soafacts.com/) and cloud can mean pretty much anything, which is why it is important to clarify what your vendor is trying to sell you. After all, services running in the cloud are still running on servers somewhere, so moving stuff to the cloud is moving stuff to someone else’s infrastructure and hoping they do a better, cheaper job.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t use cloud computing, but you should be very careful to understand exactly what you are getting, and you should be strategic. Charles Stross fans will already be familiar with the idea of the separation of data and processing power, and the cloud can provide enormous processing power without you having to necessarily hand over the reins to your data or your technology strategy. Cloud computing is not an all or nothing option.

Personally I believe you should always choose the best of breed tool for the job, committing to open standards and interoperability, and then you can mash tech together for your exact best needs rather than shifting to and away from cumbersome large solutions that try to be everything, and end up doing nothing particularly well, but I’ll leave that for another blog post ๐Ÿ™‚

Saving the environment?

Whilst there is certainly an argument to consolidating old and largely unused hardware to reduce your carbon footprint and electricity bills, moving things into the cloud does not magically reduce your carbon footprint to zero. As mentioned, there are still servers out there, so the environmental benefits can be calculated by how much better the vendor is at efficiently using their infrastructure, than you. Again, it is just worth investigating the detail to understand the actual environmental impact, if this is important to you. Remember, refrigeration is a big contributor to carbon emissions, so it isn’t just about the hardware ๐Ÿ™‚

How much money can I save?

There are certainly some great opportunities to save money by using cloud computing for some of your systems. Often you can get online services that can be cheaper than the cost of maintaining and running your own systems. It might be worthwhile to consider the cost against that of shared services under your control though rather than looking straight to the “cloud”. For instance, in Australia there is a large amount of projects around government data centre consolidation, where some costs savings can be found but the data, software, infrastructure and strategy stays under their control.

It is also worth considering the exit cost of any new solutions. Can you get access to export your data at any time, is it safely archived somewhere you can access in the unlikely but possible case of your cloud provider folding, or a contract disagreement? Can you migrate your data/service from the cloud vendor to another vendor/solution relatively easily? These are all important considerations when faced with “the cloud will save you money”.

What about my data?

What format is your data stored in within the cloud? Physically where is the data and what are you legal obligations in relation to data? This is an important concern for government where you shouldn’t store particular data sets outside of your legal jurisdiction, and government departments and agencies often have quite stringent privacy and other obligations.

Can you get immediate access to the most recent data if the “cloud” dissipates (had to make a joke like this sometime, sorry)? Where is the data archived? If you can export your data, is it available in a format that other applications can use?

All these are important considerations, because if your data is being updated in the cloud, but is not truly retrievable, you have a real problem.

The silver lining

There are a lot of opportunities to be found in cloud computing and you will find many, many blogs and presentations espousing the benefits of cloud computing. I wanted to write a short blog post to help people consider some of the issues. If you choose to move some stuff into the cloud, you are choosing to hand over the keys to your most treasured possession, so you need to make sure you aren’t locking yourself out.

You aren’t powerless in this transaction. You need to know what you want, know your exit strategy, be sure that your cloud solution is open enough to be flexible and interoperable, be comfortable with how much control you are giving up, and be sure you retain enough control to meet your obligations.

If you are comfortable with all of this, you can engage confidently with cloud vendors and demand what you need rather than being content with what you are offered ๐Ÿ™‚