Your Next Utility Bill? Cloud Computing

Okay, it’s time to pay the monthly service bills.

Water? Check.

Power? Check.

Cloud computing? Check.

The cloud is fundamentally changing our relationship to IT, transforming what used to be characterized by the purchase of expensive hardware and software to a utility-type model of pay-as-you-go consumption.

This change is taking place at home – we now very easily stream movies from smart phones and smart TVs – and at the workplace. And slowly but surely, this movement is becoming a reality in public sector organizations as well.

But there is still a world of confusion out there when it comes to cloud computing. Despite all of the hype, one fundamental question still floats around:

How do we begin to define what a cloud computing solution looks like?

To help public agencies understand the implications of cloud on government work, GovLoop hosted an in-person event Wednesday, July 16th, in Washington, D.C. The event featured keynote and panel discussions from leaders across government and private industry. The closing keynote featured Bernie Mazer, Senior Policy Advisor to the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of the Interior. Mazer’s keynote served as a day-in-review for conference attendees. “I used to be a teacher, so ‘repeat if necessary’ is something that I do,” joked Mazer. His talk covered the questions of the day, focusing on a broad definition of cloud, the requirements, and its impact on people and culture.

Cloud Definition and Characteristics

Noting that the definition of cloud is varied even within a single organization, Mazer recommended the definition established by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). You can view the definition here. To simplify things, it is helpful to think of cloud in terms of five essential characteristics.

1. On-demand Self Service: This means a person can, on their own, provision computing capabilities – like a server or network storage – without requiring human interaction with each service provider. This is like signing up for Dropbox and immediately getting a cloud-based storage system without having IT spec out and build something for you.

2. Broad Network Access: This means your technology solution is available over a network and available through a set of standard devices (like smartphones, tablets, laptops, or desktop computers).

3. Resource Pooling: In a cloud environment, the resources that power your technology solution are pooled in a multi-tenant model, with different physical and virtual resources assigned or unassigned depending on your demand. In other words, you are sharing your server, storage, or processing with a set of other users (either inside or outside of your organization), and the amount of resources you sue throttles up and down depending on use.

4. Rapid Elasticity: A cloud solution is characterized by one that can facilitate the immediate provisioning of what the owner needs, and one that is able to quickly and relatively easily scale up with demand.

5. Measured Services: This one gets a little technical, but the idea gets back to the way we began – with your utility bill. A cloud solution means that users can pay as they go (for example, the amount of data they transfer across the network).

A Real-World Example: The Mars Rover Project

Mazer highlighted an example that perfectly captures the characteristics outlined above is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL) Mars Rover project. One the rover touched down, a torrent of photos and other data started being transmitted back to the lab, threatening to overload the network, especially when they started releasing data to the public. So what they did was rapidly provision over to a cloud service provider when the demand for computing capacity spiked. JPL is now able to accommodate 80,00 requests per second, through 150 GB of bandwidth and 110 TB of data. JPL was able to anticipate the demand and scale up in just a weeks’ time, as opposed to building out a solution that could require months or years to finally go live.

Mazer noted that with confusion comes fear, which is perhaps one of the biggest barriers to cloud adoption. But he strongly encouraged attendees to work through the natural tendency to drag our feet in the face of change. “It is okay to be conscious of risk, but you need to move forward,” said Mazer.

If you'd like more information, make sure to download our latest guide, "Innovations that Matter: How Cloud is Reinventing Government."

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