How to figure out when you’re ready to move to cloud

Various options seem appealing, but they must fit an agency's mission and risk tolerance

There is a lot of pressure to move software, computing platforms and technology infrastructure to the cloud. In the federal government, the pressure is growing each year. Last year, Federal CIO Vivek Kundra announced a cloud-first plan, which requires federal agencies to consider cloud computing for initiatives before other options.

“Cloud computing services help to deliver on this administration’s commitment to provide better value for the American taxpayer by making government more efficient,” Kundra said in October 2010.

But does it make sense to move everything to the cloud? Although the promises of cost savings, scalability and flexibility of cloud-based solutions are alluring, there are times when it might make sense to keep software, platforms or infrastructure in-house — at least for now.

There are three basic types of cloud scenarios: software as a service (SaaS), platform as a service (PaaS) and infrastructure as a service (IaaS). Here is a brief definition of each.

SaaS: A model in which an organization basically rents an application, paying a flat monthly fee based on the number of transactions, users or employees.

IaaS:  The idea of off-loading the guts of a organization’s data center, such as servers and networking, to a cloud provider. It’s attractive to organizations that don’t want to manage their infrastructure, undertake an infrastructure upgrade or deal with scalability issues and would prefer to off-load that responsibility to a third party.

PaaS: A cloud service that consists of an entire platform — user interfaces, workflow engines, database services and security/authentication — complete with tools to walk you through the application-building process.

One school of thought takes these categories as whole entities, preferring to move, for example, software to the cloud, while holding out on infrastructure and platforms.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense to evaluate the cloud based on major categories such as SaaS, IaaS and PaaS, said Bob Tarzey, an analyst at UK-based Quocirca.

“There is no calculation that says that PaaS is more economically viable than SaaS, for example,” Tarzey said. “It’s more about factors like in-house IT expertise, what’s core to the business, security and yes, eventually, cost. But you have to evaluate everything on a case-by-case basis."

The amount and type of IT expertise you have on staff is an important evaluating factor. If the organization requires a new piece of software that the IT staff does not support, accessing that application in the cloud via the SaaS model makes a lot of sense. That can be true of other types of cloud offerings, too.

“If your organization has an ample development team in-house and has a project to develop a new application, they have to choose a platform and a language. Sometimes, it can make more sense to try different approaches with multiple platforms and languages using PaaS,” said Mark Bowker, a senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. “It doesn’t mean you don’t have the skill set, but it can really help with time to market because the platform is available and flexible, and you’re not locked into a specific platform, operating system or environment.”

When it comes to software, some organizations prefer to keep those applications that are core to the mission in-house and send other routine applications, such as accounting and e-mail, to the cloud.

Security is another important factor. Organizations that must adhere to specific regulations, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, are more apt to keep those applications in-house to avoid potential security issues. In addition, public-facing websites are more likely to be managed in the cloud than sites with sensitive information, added Greg Sanchez, chief technology officer of the Civilian and Homeland Security Division at General Dynamics IT. Many agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, White House, General Services Administration, Homeland Security Department and Health and Human Services Department, have done this.

Instead of making blanket decisions about what types of applications, platforms and infrastructure are good fits for the cloud, Bowker said he recommends evaluating everything on a case-by-case basis.

“It’s when you have a specific issue like an application upgrade or a need to access new resources, or an entirely new project, that can be used as a trigger point to consider the cloud,” he said.

If all things are equal, looking at the economics certainly makes sense, Tarzey added. When you do, look at the total stack: physical, software and people. “It’s pretty easy to do the math,” he said.

About this Report

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