Research Report: The Virtual Public Sector

Putting collaboration into the cloud

Whatever doubts federal IT managers might have about the use of cloud computing for other application areas, they are apparently ready to embrace collaboration in the cloud.

On the one hand that’s not surprising, given that basic collaboration tools, such as e-mail, have been the first to migrate to the cloud. Early on, agencies adopted them largely as a way to drive down the cost of operations and management. But agencies have found that the benefits go beyond the bottom line.

For example, in 2011 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) consolidated 19 legacy email systems across the country into one cloud-based service. The agency has found that the move has vastly improved the speed with which people can locate each other and share documents, and has added other collaboration tools such as instant message and video chat.

Other agencies have looked to the cloud for their collaboration needs from the get-go. The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) established Defense Connect Online (DCO) in 2009 as a Web-based set of collaboration capabilities, such as document sharing, white-boarding and voice-over-Internet (VoIP), all located in a private cloud.

Demand for the service was steady for the first few years, but exploded in 2012 as cuts to the travel and conference budgets started to kick in, with daily usage growing by over 100 percent. In response, DISA had to double the DCO’s capacity in 2013.

DISA said DCO is now the designated enterprise tool for world-wide synchronous and asynchronous collaboration for both the unclassified-but-sensitive Internet Protocol Router Network (NIPRNet) and the Secret Internet Protocol Routing Network (SIPRNet). The agency plans to expand its reach even further by integrating video service.

However, experts say agencies shouldn’t rush to the cloud for their collaboration needs just because it’s the trendy thing to do.

Instead, they should look to the specific problems that have to be solved. The cloud is probably the best platform if an organization needs to enable employees to share files securely with outside parties or with colleagues across the globe. Likewise, the cloud might be the platform of choice if an agency needs the ability to quickly pull a group of people into an online workspace and track their progress on tasks.

How far should you go with collaboration in the cloud? As with other applications, cloud should be seen as an enabler and not a solution in itself, said Vanessa Thompson, research manager for enterprise social networks and collaborative technologies at market watcher International Data Corp. It allows access to applications and services, and therefore data and information, and enables people to indulge in collaboration wherever they are.

Cloud-based collaboration has a number of advantages, such as ease of access, support for mobility and integration using application programming interfaces (APIs). But there’s no “explicit formula” for the steps that organizations can take to implement cloud collaboration, she said.