By relying on an emergency alert service, Chester County, Pa., can send out a weather warning or road-closure alert to thousands of citizens in minutes, say Robert Lee (above) and Patty Mains (below) of the county's Department of Emergency Services.

The Sky's the Limit

For state and local governments, cloud computing offers a mechanism for adding IT services without driving up costs

Clouds often are a dire sign in Chester County, Pa.

"If it looks like rain, it's going to flood," says Patty Mains of the Department of Emergency Services, only half jokingly. Now, when flash floods threaten, the department taps an alert service and immediately pushes a warning to citizens in the affected area.

That service takes advantage of a cloud of another kind -- cloud computing. Emergency alert and notification systems offer a prime example of an early cloud-type effort that many state and local organizations from coast to coast have adopted.

Although alert services are not nearly as far-reaching as other cloud computing efforts taking flight in state and local government, they illustrate the benefits of the concept.

"Cloud computing enables government IT organizations to commoditize IT infrastructures and related services, removing the complexity of on-premises deployment and management," says Andrea Di Maio, a vice president and distinguished analyst for Gartner. "Although long-term pricing models are not yet well understood, this enables government entities to reduce capital investments and avoid the overprovisioning of infrastructure that is typical to meet uncertain demand."

By relying on third parties to host alerting systems and allowing access at a moment's notice for pushing out information to thousands of first responders and citizens, state and local public-safety departments have discovered they can save time, money and technical resources while providing a desired service.

A Bigger Umbrella

For just those reasons, Cooper Notification's Roam Secure Alert Network (RSAN) system and message texting service appealed to the Chester Department of Emergency Services, says Mains, assistant director for external liaison and public information. The department, which provides police, fire and EMS emergency dispatch, began using the RSAN alerting system about three and a half years ago to send mass notifications to employees, says Robert Lee, a communications technician for the department. And in the past 18 months, it expanded the service so that the department can send them to citizens as well.

32% of state CIOs have placed applications in the cloud, and another 25% are planning cloud computing apps for 2010.

Users simply navigate from a desktop link to a scripting page that lets them code the alert and select the recipients. "We really do everything through Cooper RSAN," Lee says. "They are our infrastructure for the notification service."

But now, many state and local organizations envision a more robust move into the cloud, driven mainly by financial circumstances. "We've got to offer new alternatives that offer low cost and meet customer needs," says Michigan Chief Technology Officer Dan Lohrmann, whose state has the nation's worst unemployment rate and faces extremely limited budget prospects.

Several states and cities are working on private cloud projects with the aim of being able to work with one or more vendors to provide on-the-fly provisioning of storage, data processing and even applications.

This is not just a procurement change, points out Lohrmann. It requires a deep understanding of the IT infrastructure that an organization or government has in place and then aligning that with potential cloud services, Di Maio adds.

To map out these efforts, IT leaders suggest some fundamental initial steps: address the basics of security, access and data ownership; establish baseline service expectations based on an analysis of real-world transactional service needs, then craft appropriate memorandums of understanding (MOU) and service-level agreements (SLA); acquire adequate bandwidth; and finally, detail a disaster recovery plan.

The Basics

"Security, access and ownership of data -- those are real big issues for governments," says Utah CIO Stephen Fletcher. "They have to be comfortable that those issues are addressed before they will go forward using a cloud, particularly from a vendor."

Photo Credit: Jared Castaldi

If a state or local IT entity has consolidated data services and virtualized operations to create a center of excellence, it will already have addressed those basic issues and can consider creating a private cloud, says Fletcher, who in the fall became the new president of the National Association of State CIOs. Shared services can be seen as a baby step, he suggests.

Utah, which has virtualized nearly all of its IT services, recently began vetting state services that it could offer in a cloud. "We figure we can offer the platform as a service to local government partners because we have already addressed issues of ownership and security," Fletcher says. The goal is to launch services in late winter or early spring 2010.

Ultimately, he believes cloud services can be offered across state and even federal jurisdictions because governments trust one another and understand one another's unique regulatory and data environments.

The Baseline

In Michigan, where a pilot cloud effort kicked off this winter, the emphasis is on establishing the baseline for services available from a state-run cloud, which Lohrmann has personally dubbed MiCloud (pronounced "my cloud"). "We're putting policies around the whole process and making sure that the cloud services we're using are secure and follow established procedures."

Journeys Begin


  • Los Angeles: Awarded a contract to Computer Science Corp. to upgrade its IT infrastructure to use Google Apps for e-mail, calendar, online chat and other services for 30,000 city employees.
  • Michigan: Aims to provide storage provisioning to users statewide based on a pilot under way now with more than a half-dozen participating vendors.
  • Utah: Plans to offer as many as 50 cloud service options through its state-run program, starting with a half-dozen government customers by midyear.

During the tests, the state will work with several vendors to set baseline requirements. Lohrmann anticipates the result will be tiers of services -- bronze, silver, gold and platinum -- where security and speed of turnaround expand upward.

In talking with many state and local organizations, Fletcher has found that often "there is no baseline. No one has any idea of what level of service they are providing." This knowledge is essential for setting MOUs and SLAs and establishing pricing.

The Bandwidth

From an infrastructure perspective, another challenge will be bandwidth. The federal effort to provide funds for rural broadband will certainly enhance the ability of state and local governments to make use of cloud services. "If you don't have the bandwidth, the connectivity and high-speed access to the sites, you can't do cloud computing," Lohrmann says.

In tandem with its cloud pilot, Michigan is looking at how to collapse network services and manage data loads across multijurisdictional data pipes. The state is testing this effort with Oakland County. Lohrmann uses the analogy of a single individual sitting in his or her home office: "Why would you have a separate line to get to Amazon, to eBay, to Facebook, to the bank, to work and to the government? You wouldn't. We shouldn't."

To help drive broadband deployment in rural Utah, Fletcher is working to get Gigabit Ethernet connectivity in every school and state building. Currently, all schools have at least 100-megabit-per second nodes, moving toward Gigabit.

The Backup

Finally, a government cloud, like any IT program, must be ready for the worst, says Gartner's Di Maio.

"Governments need to ensure that data is replicated so that it can be recovered from cascading critical incidents or natural and manmade disasters," he says. Data recovery capabilities must be a foundational element of a cloud effort.

Lohrmann says the Michigan pilot will evaluate whether low-cost, quick provisioning is possible in a state-run cloud. "Can we do that? How fast can we do that? Can we get a terabyte of data in a couple of hours?" wonders Lohrmann. "That's a radical culture change for government to be able to do that. It's very, very exciting."

From a Lot to Many More

The use of an emergency notification service to send alerts to citizens made obvious sense for Chester County, Pa., because it already was using Cooper Notification's Roam Secure Alert Network to instantly send warnings to the county's emergency workers and first responders.

There were minimal changes for the county and literally no training needed to begin using it for citizen notifications, says Robert Lee, a communications technician for the Technical Support Division of the Chester Department of Emergency Services. Chester joined forces with four other southeastern Pennsylvania counties and Gloucester County, N.J., to launch the citizen notification service ReadyNotifyPA. Subscribers receive text message alerts through their e-mail, cell phones, personal digital assistants or pagers.

Chester County had realized the benefits of being able to contact employees at 58 fire, rescue and emergency services organizations and 48 law enforcement organizations simultaneously, says Patty Mains, assistant director for external liaison and public information. Now, it uses the tool to let subscribers know when a road is closed or a flood creates potential hazards, for instance.

The goal of ReadyNotifyPA is to support emergency notifications across a large region and population in the wake of a terrorist attack or other major disaster. But for the counties participating, the ability to use it for smaller-scale, public-safety purposes makes the investment pay off immediately.

Jared Castaldi
Dec 09 2009