smart city

5 steps to jumpstart your city's cloud

Among city government IT managers, cloud computing has drawn a lot of interest, as well as suspicion. Along with the touted advantages of the cloud has come considerable caution over its drawbacks, not least for its potential security and privacy hazards. Consequently, cities have been slow to adopt cloud-based services.

At least, that used to be the story. But the financial squeeze that has encircled all governments over the past few years, coupled with a drive to use IT to provide better services to citizens, has caused a major reappraisal.

If you are the IT manager of a small city that’s been on the cloud sidelines, it may be time to consider moving it up your list of options as a way to both limit costs and provide the technology needed for innovation.

“A couple of years ago most cities still had a theoretical and tentative approach to cloud,” said Eric Woods, research director of Navigant Research. “What does it mean, what are the strategic implications and so on. But I think that’s now all gone.”

In its place is an acceptance that cloud is the modern way of delivering services. “There’s been a transformation over the past 12-18 months in the way people look at this,” he said.

Cloud providers certainly see the need. IBM, for example, in January announced it would spend around $1.2 billion to expand its global cloud footprint to take advantage of a market that some estimates put at around $200 billion by 2020, driven in part by demand from government agencies.

So, if nearly every city will to go the cloud, sooner or later, what do you need to know to get started?

When to make the move?

Even with the cloud dead ahead, it’s still not a move to make without considerable forethought. There are pros and cons that have to be weighed, issues worked through, and a need for a firm understanding of what the timeline of any investment will be.

It’s a process. If you have a relatively new data center and excess capacity, it probably doesn’t make sense to go to the cloud, at least not yet. And if you have  a number of existing, working data centers, there are steps you will need to take to get the most out of that investment first.

“There are two things that should come before cloud,” said Alan Shark, executive director and chief executive of the Public Technology Institute (PTI). “Cities first have to ask if they need all of the data centers and servers they have, and so should consolidate. Then comes virtualization, which prolongs the life of current data centers.”

Virtualization uses software to split a single physical server into myriad virtual servers, each of which acts as separate systems. Shark said he “doesn’t see much movement yet to replace mainframes by the cloud.”

After resolving the data center issue, you should look at migration strategies for services destined for the cloud. Security should be front and center, and if the cloud service will handle payments, payment card industry data compliance will also have to be considered.

Most of the concerns cities have about the cloud relates to control of the IT systems they use, Woods said, which come from the cities’ sense of responsibility for the services they offer. So issues of governance, security and accountability play an important part in the early caution many cities have about going to the cloud.

Because of those concerns, not all services may go to the cloud. But, once you work through the process of deciding what’s appropriate to migrate, the cost and flexibility advantages of the cloud mean many services will make the move.

Pick the low-hanging fruit

There are some cloud-based services that are simply no brainers, where the downside risk is negligible.

Email, for example. Maintaining email servers is both expensive and time-consuming, and commercial providers simply do it far better, more securely and more cost effectively. Washington, D.C., Orlando, Fla., and Los Angeles were, some years ago, examples of early adopters of Google Apps and its cloud-hosted email.

Now, many organizations are looking beyond email to such services as Microsoft’s cloud-based Office 365. If cities are setting up new offices anywhere, then using the cloud to provide IT services is an obvious route to take, Woods said.

The cloud is also a particularly good choice for providing any extra capacity that’s needed for compute resources or storage, where the only other option would be for cities to buy racks of servers or drives, something that’s increasingly difficult with current budget constraints.

“Video and the massive amounts of storage needed for that kind of data will become a big issue,” Shark said. “There’s also a need for off-site storage for disaster recovery and archives of years’ worth of email and other data that may have to be retrieved in the case of e-discovery requests by lawyers.”

Even if you still have lingering doubts about using cloud-based services it’s impossible these days to have a strictly black-and-white view of the issues. There’s plenty of low-hanging fruit that any city can easily take advantage of.

Buy or build your own?

It’s a good question to ask yourself, because building your own private cloud solutions will answer many of the early concerns you may have. Governance, security and accountability will be all more certain when cloud services are contained within a border you can control.

Well, yes — and no. Private clouds promote certainty, but they may not offer the kinds of advanced solutions that users and citizens are starting to demand. Commercial cloud providers have proven far more nimble when it comes to that.

“We are a seeing cities going down multiple paths,” said Karen Parrish, vice president, public sector industry solutions at IBM. “They’ll go for private clouds, because of issues around secure data and compliance, and also for scalability testing [of cloud applications].”

But when they want to analyze information they gather about how their cities operate, or when they want to share information with citizens through alerts and notifications on mobile devices, that’s when they’ll make greater use of public cloud capabilities, she said.

The city of Palo Alto has had its own private cloud solution for more than 10 years, before the cloud was known as the cloud, and that’s been a very successful endeavor. The city’s permitting system was one of the first services to be provisioned in the cloud, and the city “has never had to deal with hardware issues or updates, and the stable performance has been consistent,” said Jonathan Reichental, Palo Alto’s chief information officer.

The biggest regret is that the city didn’t move more services more quickly into the cloud, he said, and it’s moving today to take advantage of all the benefits of cloud computing. The take-away is to move fast but strike a good balance between stable, known technologies and riskier, unproven solutions.

“Our vision is to provision the majority of necessary city services via public cloud offerings,” Reichental said, “but we will retain an on-premise footprint for some legacy requirements, critical systems and niche solutions.”

If there’s any standard template for cities moving to the cloud, the approach that Palo Alto is taking is probably it, Navigant’s Woods said.

“It’s definitely a hybrid world we are moving in to,” he said. “I think that’s part of the approach that cities and other government entities are going to have to get used to for how they pick and choose their [cloud] options.”

Get smart, use the cloud

Smart city solutions are those that use data from embedded sensors and IT to better understand information-rich issues such as traffic flows, water management and infrastructure problems with a view to improving the “livability” of a city.

They are increasingly seen as a necessity if your jurisdiction wants to remain competitive in attracting tourists and industry and in improving overall quality of life for citizens.

While it’s possible for cities to enable smart technology without using cloud-based services, it’s unlikely you will be able to do so in any meaningful way.

“The cloud is what lets cities big and small leapfrog to the state of the art, without having to go through a very painful process to get there,” said Jesse Berst, chairman of the Smart Cities Council.

“We’re seeing the smart city approach being taken up across the spectrum, from small to big cities. But there’s no way that small- and medium-sized cities in particular could afford to do this by themselves.”

Cities such as Hartford, Conn., Dubuque, Iowa, and Carson City, Nev., are all examples of smaller places that have become very smart and that are using cloud-based services extensively, he said.

If you’re moving toward a smart city or smart services approach, cloud will be essential, IBM’s Parrish also believes.

Cities are starting from different stages of maturity in providing services to their citizens, and they are focused on different goals. The smart city environment is another level of maturity altogether, she said, adding that the “use of cloud technology can be an enabler to reaching people on a mass scale for these things.”

As an IT manager, you should not jump into smart city applications if you don’t already have experience with cloud-based services, Berst said. If that’s the case, start with a small pilot project and work with a real-world problem.

“Pick an application that creates an immediate citizen benefit and awareness,” he said. “With cloud, you can increasingly get those off-the-shelf or in a semi-custom version, and get them up and running in just a few weeks.”

However, Berst doesn’t think the cloud can be avoided. A smart city talks back to you, he said, through  a massive amount of data. The value comes from being able to analyze that data in near real time, “and cities on their own just don’t have the compute power and IT expertise to crunch all of that data.”

Consider shared services

The fiscal crunch that yours and similar towns may have experienced has increased interest in services sharing between agencies or between neighboring entities.

Shared services is not the same as consolidating services, where multiple instances of a service or application are reduced to just one or two and then provided from single host to many organizations. With shared services, you share the cost of your IT infrastructure investment by selling services; meanwhile the receiving agency gets a cost-effective way to provide services to its users.

States such as Alaska, Montana and various western state alliances have established shared services to their localities and cities. And cities themselves have been jumping into the fray. Melrose, Mass., for example, provides services to neighboring towns and to sites within the city through a secure, multitenant private cloud.

The attraction of using the cloud to provide shared services is very strong, said Navigant’s Woods.

While shared services have had a checkered history – mainly because of political and cultural problems – when it does work it opens up avenues to peer-to-peer communications or the ability to provide services in a more flexible way.

“I think cloud is helping to overcome the problems and accelerate the use of shared services,” he said.

However, there are caveats. Your city might not be able to bankroll such a business deal, said PTI’s Shark. If federal or state governments were to provide seed money it might be a different matter, “but it takes a lot of time and effort to put together the legal entity that can pool things from a government standpoint.”

“For that reason, it’s so much easier for a city CIO to cut a deal with an Amazon, an IBM or whoever,” he said.

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