The promise of cloud computing

Agencies see better service, savings as more embrace software as a service

  • It operates on a fee-for-service basis rather than requiring users to buy hardware and software.
  • In-house technology employees can focus on core functions.
  • It offers better service because providers are experts in specific areas.
  • It has more predictable control over expenses.
  • It provides flexible computing power.

Nearly 40 percent of the e-mail sent to the Superior Court of California in Kern County is spam. In an average month, that's about 26,000 pieces of mail.

All the time, bandwidth and storage required to handle the junk mail is a huge drain on the court. So rather than trying to filter all that junk mail with an in-house system, the court's information technology staff turned to Google-owned Postini, a hosted message security service.

With Postini, spam e-mail is filtered before it reaches the court's Microsoft Exchange servers. Adopting a cloud computing model ? in which all the work is done outside the walls of the Superior Court ? to block spam lifted a huge burden off the organization's IT systems, said Greg Verharst, the court's network supervisor.

"We have 650 computers and 500 employees," Verharst said. "For all our Internet use and mail, thanks in large part to the Postini service, we only need one T1 line to handle our Internet traffic."

"We also don't have to pay to have a mail specialist in-house," he said.

The benefits the Superior Court is reaping from Postini illustrate the promised gains of cloud computing. With the technology, agencies pay a subscription fee for a service rather than buying the hardware and software required to provide that service in-house. Cloud computing is designed to allow IT employees to focus on an organization's core functions rather than on administrative tasks such as spam filtering.

Cloud computing also has the potential to deliver better service than what could be done in-house because the service providers become experts in specific areas. Postini, for example, stays on top of any emerging spam or virus threats.

For many, the terms cloud computing and software as a service are interchangeable. Postini, for example, was founded as a hosted-software provider in 1999 to help organizations manage communications using an Internet protocol.

Address specific threats

With the heightened attention cloud computing is receiving, organizations are rethinking what they do in-house when it comes to IT, said Adam Swidler, a manager at Google Apps Security.

"Cloud computing looks attractive when agencies start getting big blasts of spam that might overload their systems and, in some cases, push them into unexpected and unplanned upgrades that were not budgeted for," Swidler said.

"So agencies get caught in a budget pinch by having to go out and acquire new hardware and storage to deal with unexpected problems like spam," he said.

Many agencies are turning to the cloud computing model as a way to get out of that never-ending treadmill of having to upgrade and constantly stay ahead of issues such as spam and viruses.

Cloud computing offers more predictable control over expenses. It also allows agencies' IT organizations to significantly reduce the amount of resources and time that they spend on non-core tasks.

Cloud computing is often a new way for agencies to operate, but the annual subscription model can fit into a federal budgeting cycle reasonably well. With a subscription, agencies don't have the large upfront costs associated with developing a system. The predictable subscription outlay can roll into a budget planning process and doesn't become a wild card of unexpected costs that managing in-house systems can become.

For something as unpredictable as spam, dealing with it at a remote location adds a layer of protection. A remote location can act as a buffer if some sort of organized attack is mounted.

"This notion of putting a solution between our IT organization and where the threats are coming from makes perfect sense from a technology sense and from a budgeting perspective," Swidler said.

A role for integrators

Implementing cloud computing technology is usually a straightforward process, but there are opportunities for systems integrators to add value.

"The areas where systems integrators could certainly participate and add value include things like helping organizations define what some of their policies should be around things like inbound file attachments," Swidler said.

Integrators can also assist with deployment and help agencies decide how rapidly they want to deploy the technology.

"We've certainly seen some organizations deploy solutions very rapidly, and we've seen other agencies use more of a phased approach," Swidler said. "And the systems integrators can help an agency figure how they want to do that rollout."

The real boon for agencies is that cloud computing allows them to better target their integrator dollars. Do-it-yourself cloud technology frees funds for more core IT systems work.

Added flexibility

Another benefit of cloud computing is the flexibility of its computing power, said Dave Rosenberg, chief executive officer at MuleSource Inc., a provider of open-source software.

An agency can pay for computing capacity during a time of increased demand. For example, an agency providing emergency support could buy additional capacity during a hurricane.

With the pay-as-you-go model, agencies do not have to support a large amount of rarely used capacity.

"Agencies have become much more nimble in how they consume software in general," Rosenberg said. "The ability to have elasticity in your own IT infrastructure is difficult, but it is easy with the cloud."

At the Kern County Superior Court, the IT department is designing, configuring and building a disaster recovery center. When the issue of Internet redundancy came up, one of the questions was whether officials wanted to administer their own border gateway protocol for processing incoming mail.

"The quick answer was no because Postini allows us to have multiple Internet connections," Verharst said. "So rather than bringing that administration in-house, we would just have Postini be that front leader in managing our Internet connection. If our Internet connection at our main site goes down, Postini will automatically fail over the incoming mail traffic to our secondary site. It is a huge plus for us."

Doug Beizer is a staff writer with Washington Technology.

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