When Milwaukee County, Wis., looked to move some software to the cloud several years ago, data security was of paramount concern.
"We operate everything, from the airport to the zoo," says Nicholas Wojciechowski, chief technology officer for the county. "That includes the Department of Health and Human Services, so there are [healthcare] regulations we need to meet. From a public safety perspective, we manage the sheriff's office, so we need to worry about criminal data. Security is a big deal."
Milwaukee County went with Microsoft Office 365, in part because the cloud product meets compliance regulations for both health and criminal justice data.
But security is far from the only factor that officials must weigh when migrating systems to the cloud. In Milwaukee County's case, for example, officials had to consider several licensing options with Microsoft. Governments must also pick which applications to move to the cloud and which to leave in-house, decide between varying pricing plans and different levels of service, and choose between several different cloud models.
By knowing what they want and breaking the process down to a series of smaller decisions, IT leaders can save themselves some headaches and adopt a cloud strategy that works.
Apps to Send Skyward
Many organizations make their first foray into Software as a Service computing models by deploying Microsoft Office 365 or Google Apps. But of course, that's only the beginning.
Shawn McCarthy, a research director for IDC Government Insights, recommends that agencies explore the cloud as a place to host any new applications they develop. He notes that governments are creating an incredible amount of data through connected devices such as road sensors, smart parking meters and networked traffic lights. "In many cases, that data is going into brand-new applications that governments didn't have before," McCarthy says. "Sending that directly to the cloud keeps them from having to build a lot of infrastructure."
The cloud is also a natural fit for existing applications that aren't used every day, but have sporadic spikes of activity, such as software or infrastructure associated with elections. For example, Asheville, N.C., first experimented with the cloud by migrating the city's on-premises emergency alert system, which is sporadically used for unpredictable events such as boil-water alerts.
Jonathan Feldman, CIO for Asheville, says the move to the cloud saved money and enhanced operations. The city's previous emergency alert system could make only about 30 calls at once. "We were waking people up, because we sent the alert out and it took six to seven hours to get the calls through," he says.
Asheville has since explored moving other infrequently used systems to the cloud.
"If you're running an application that sometimes needs one server, but sometimes scales up to 12, why would you build infrastructure in house for the one time a year you need 12 servers?" Feldman says. "You wouldn't. You don't build a church for Christmas. You build a church for the rest of the year."
At first, Milwaukee County officials planned to purchase software licenses that would give employees access only to web-based versions of Office applications, and would also allow them to collaborate and communicate via the Microsoft SharePoint, Exchange and Lync online platforms.
But they soon realized that providing employees access to only the online apps had the potential to create confusion because employees were used to working with the traditional machine-installed versions of programs like Word and Excel.
"It would require a huge change in the way a user operates on a daily basis," says Wojciechowski. As a result, the county upgraded its license to include the fully installable Office suite for each machine.
The county moved forward with the cloud-based version of Office (in addition to the installable version) and used Microsoft Office 365 in part because officials want to turn their IT department into one that chiefly manages services, rather than physical infrastructure. Also, the cloud licenses allow users to run the Office apps on up to five different devices, a feature that Wojciechowski says the county will take advantage of.
Microsoft charges Milwaukee County a monthly fee for each licensed user, and the county is allowed to add or delete users, resulting in a higher or lower bill. The county purchased licenses for 3,500 of its 4,500 employees, and Wojciechowski says officials may explore a la carte options for the remaining workers — licensing some of the Microsoft platforms, but not all.
"We may look at the remaining users and say, 'All they need is a mailbox [through Exchange], or all they need is SharePoint access," Wojciechowski says. He adds that the county could alter the licenses of existing users if it turns out that they don't use all of the programs, although it might not be worth the cost savings. "It's all designed to work so seamlessly together that it might be more detrimental to cut something out than to provide users with the full experience."
Photo: Darren Hauck
"It's all designed to work so seamlessly together that it might be more detrimental to cut something out than to provide users with the full experience."
Read the Fine Print
IDC's McCarthy stresses the importance of understanding service-level agreements with cloud providers. The agreements outline, for example, a guaranteed percentage of time that the cloud will be accessible. They may also specify how long the cloud provider has to respond to user issues.
McCarthy tells the story of a cloud customer that reported an issue at 9 a.m. on a workday, and was upset when it wasn't fixed until the afternoon. But the cloud provider thought it was providing excellent service, because the service-level agreement gave the provider a 24-hour window to respond to issues.
Perhaps most important, cloud customers must pin down who owns the data stored or created in the cloud: the customer or the provider?
The Cloud Broker Model
When the Texas Department of Information Resources launched a cloud pilot, the agency worked with a cloud broker — a reseller of cloud services that takes responsibility for the customer experience — largely to comply with the state's procurement laws. Todd Kimbriel, chief operations officer for the agency, recommends that organizations exploring a move to the cloud work with a broker or hire a company to perform a cloud assessment.
"Brokers should be able to point organizations to the service provider that meets their expectations," Kimbriel says. "The broker provides that connection between the capabilities of the back-end provider and the demands of the customer."
A broker could be especially helpful in keeping officials up to speed, given the rapid pace of change in the world of cloud services. " 'Cloud years' are kind of like dog years," Kimbriel says. "Every calendar year is like seven cloud years. Three years ago, it was a very different landscape than it is today."