Think you can just jump into the cloud? Think again.
Without first building the right service-oriented architecture, you’ll be left hanging
Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.
Are you shopping for cloud-based information technology solutions? You might not be as prepared for the transition as you think you are.
On the surface, it might seem easy to plug into new IT services that deliver their solutions directly via the Internet. With the click of a mouse, you can sign up for e-mail, case management, help-desk solutions, storage and much more. All you need is a secure Web browser, right?
However, there's much more to it than that. Government agencies could discover they need to vastly improve whatever service-oriented architecture they have in place.
I'm well aware that some IT managers' eyes glaze over at the very mention of SOA. The conversation seems outdated, harkening back to the "Web services" buzz of a few years ago. Back then, we talked a lot about Web Services Description Language, the original Simple Object Access Protocol and Universal Description Discovery and Integration.
The fact is these solutions have not been left in the dust. They're still a part of the mix when implementing shared solutions across an enterprise. The challenge is that some IT departments have changed their focus. They see the cloud as their long-term goal, and as they move toward that goal, some think they can leapfrog that part of their enterprise IT development.
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Even if you use more formal integration solutions, such as IBM's WebSphere, SAP BusinessObjects or one of a variety of Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition systems, you still need to standardize your enterprise approach to information sharing and how applications interact.
Moving toward cloud computing should not mean that interest in developing enterprise-level IT standards wanes. That's because the advantage of cloud solutions won't come from online applications alone.
Consider this: In the early days of cloud computing — 18 months ago through the present — cloud-based applications led the charge. Government agencies have been able to plug into things such as externally hosted e-mail solutions, shared-service centers for human resources software and even help-desk applications. But that's just the beginning.
The biggest growth area for cloud computing will be in other types of solutions and other parts of an organization's infrastructure. Remote storage will be one of the fastest-growing areas, followed by application development and deployment. System infrastructure software is also a hot area for the cloud.
The latest Government Cloud Computing Framework being circulated at the CIO Council and General Services Administration outlines much more than applications. It highlights three primary areas for cloud solutions.
- Core cloud services, including software-as-a-service, platform-as-a-service and infrastructure-as-a-service applications.
- Cloud user tools, including application integration, user and administrative Web portals, and reporting and analytics tools.
- Cloud service delivery capabilities, including service management and provisioning, security and data privacy tools, and data center facilities and associated management.
To take advantage of all types of cloud solutions, agencies need a solid enterprise architecture that supports integrated SOA and SOA governance across the enterprise. The plan should set specific rules to ensure that the services your information technology staff or external cloud provider identify, design and build are appropriate and consumable across all your organization's distributed computing platforms.
A solid SOA can make all of the services those systems expose — from applications that run on any platform — locatable by and functionally compliant with enterprisewide policies. Those solutions and policies should be capable of being defined, enforced and audited across other platforms.
Government is beginning a slow but important transition. It's moving away from being the owner and manager of hardware and software. It's heading toward setting itself up as a service management platform. With a proper SOA in place, agencies can simply set performance standards and then award contracts for best-of-breed solutions. Software licensing — or open-source software — becomes the choice of the service provider, while agencies can start treating many solutions as utilities, buying what they need and eliminating most software ownership associated with it.
Newly arriving cloud services must be able to share data with existing systems during this transition. And none of it can happen unless agencies have a SOA that can support much more than just Web-facing applications.
Luckily, there is a shortcut to cloud computing, though it has nothing to do with ignoring your enterprise architecture or long-term SOA development. Some large systems integrators offer infrastructure as a service, supplying the SOA you need to tap into many types of cloud systems.
It's probably better to do this yourself, if you can. But don't overlook the infrastructure outsourcing option if you need a fast track to cloud computing.