Magazine Article | January 28, 2013

Q&A: Reap The Rewards Of Cloud Computing

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

By Sarah Howland, Editor In Chief, Field Technologies magazine

Editor In Chief Sarah Howland talks one-on-one with Michael Armstrong, CIO of the city of Corpus Christi, about how this south Texas city is benefiting from the cloud.

When economic circumstances forced the city of Corpus Christi to turn to cloud computing, fears abounded. But the city’s IT team quickly learned that not only were its worries unfounded, but also that the cloud provided benefits they’d never even dreamt of. Due to stories like Corpus Christi’s, and the increased use of cloud applications in our everyday lives, anxiety doesn’t surround the technology as it once did. In fact, according to IDC Research, worldwide revenue from public IT cloud services exceeded $21.5 billion in 2010 and will reach $72.9 billion in 2015, representing a compound annual growth rate of 27.6%. IDC also reports that by 2015, one of every seven dollars spent on packaged software, server, and storage offerings will be through the public cloud model.

Michael Armstrong, CIO of the city of Corpus Christi, was — like his team — skeptical of the benefits versus the risks of cloud computing. But he has become a believer since the city was forced to begin migrating some of its applications to the cloud when the economy took a dive. Here, Armstrong shares with us his thoughts on why the cloud is something you should embrace.

Field Technologies: You mentioned that the economy forced the city of Corpus Christi to consider cloud computing as an option when it hadn’t before. Why is that? What did you uncover as you began evaluating the cloud?

Armstrong: The reason we began to take a closer look at the cloud when the economy turned is the cost savings it would provide. We knew that by migrating applications to the cloud we would be freeing up internal IT labor to focus on other, more important, tasks. However, it wasn’t that simple a decision — it’s a shift in the way you do business, and big shifts like that never come easy. We had our concerns. Historically, CIOs have treasured having local control of applications, with some good reason. But the economic downturn made us more willing to assume more risk than we have traditionally done — to consider the benefits of the cloud when we would’ve focused on what we considered to be the drawbacks otherwise.

The economy wasn’t the only factor, though. There were two other aspects that played a big role. First, the hosted model, which has actually been around for a long time, was really maturing — functionality and benefits had increased while risks decreased. Second, there had been a substantial decrease in the cost of broadband connectivity, making regular access to cloud applications much more affordable.

Field Technologies: What cloud-based solutions is the city currently using? What cloud application do you plan to use in the future?

Armstrong: We have been working in the cloud for about three years now. We have migrated our SunGard suite of applications (utility billing, land development, and permitting) from on-premise to the cloud. We’ve also migrated our email and calendaring functions, as well as a number of other smaller applications to hosted environments.

As far as what cloud solutions we’ll be leveraging in the future, we have now as an organization adopted a “cloud first” principle. That means that we will only add an on-premise application if we have no alternative. I think that speaks volumes about the value we’ve found in the cloud.

Field Technologies: What was involved in the migration of your applications from premisebased to the cloud? Did you find the process easy or difficult?

Armstrong: It depends on how much data you have to migrate; that’s the biggest issue. Applications with no legacy data requirement are pretty smooth to get up and running. On the flip side, we had very large data stores for our SunGard applications and Microsoft (email). The amount of data we had to transfer made those migrations much harder than we thought they would be. The good news is, it’s a one-time event — just a onetime event that can be challenging.

Field Technologies: What do you consider the primary advantages of leveraging the cloud versus hosting applications internally? How has Corpus Christi experienced those advantages?

Armstrong: In my opinion, there are two major advantages. The first is the freedom your IT staff has in not having to manage and support hardware infrastructure. Second, hosted applications almost always include some disaster recovery functions, which is a nice feature. Since we began migrating applications to the cloud, we have seen hard dollar savings of about $200,000. We’ve been able to use the lighter support load to our advantage by moving IT resources that were burdened with those duties to more useful roles.

Field Technologies: Many companies’ concerns with using the cloud involve security and a lack of control over the cloud-based applications. What has your experience been in this regard? What advice can you give these companies?

Armstrong: Our experience regarding security has actually been the opposite — we have found that at least larger cloud vendors have security that is far superior to ours. This is one of the improvements I was referring to earlier that has come in the past decade as hosted solutions have matured. The security concerns that may have once been founded are no longer a reality — most cloud solutions are very secure.

I think as CIOs we tend to exaggerate both our own security and the value of what we seek to protect. Security guys tend to want to protect everything to the same high standard, but not all data is created equal. If I have any advice, it would be to invest money and time in protecting what is really valuable and don’t waste resources on what’s not. That means we have to have a solid understanding of both the business and the data it creates.

Field Technologies: What misconceptions do you think exist about cloud computing? What in your experience proved these misconceptions to be untrue?

Armstrong: I think the biggest misconception is that you can put something in the cloud and you won’t have to worry about it anymore. That’s not true — you no longer have to manage the application infrastructure, but you must become an expert at contract management, SLA (service level agreement) development and monitoring, and you have yet another relationship to manage. If you can’t do these things well, you won’t get what you want out of using the cloud.

Another common misconception is that there is one cloud model. Again, not true — there are different cloud models, and different cloud models will be appropriate for different kinds of applications. For instance, our big, mission-critical applications use SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) models, while our less mission-critical applications may live in the public cloud. You have to understand the different types of cloud models that exist and be able to determine how they’ll best apply to your business.

Field Technologies: What role will the cloud play in the city of Corpus Christi’s technology initiatives going forward?

Armstrong: The cloud will continue to play a big role for the city. As I mentioned, we now turn to premise-based solutions only if there is no cloud alternative — the cloud is our first choice for all applications. The cloud is one of three trends we see that we believe are going to change the way we do business in major ways. The other two trends are virtualization and mobility. The impact of these three trends can already be seen in our organization. I believe that in the near future (four to five years), we will operate few, if any, systems in-house. Virtualization, particularly of the desktop, will reduce bandwidth requirements and will let users have full access to enterprise resources no matter where they are. At some point soon, the only thing users will need to access any information or application necessary for their job is the Internet.

Field Technologies: What role do you see the cloud playing in the future for businesses with a mobile workforce?

Armstrong: Well, I think that mobile workforce management will rely to a much greater degree on M2M (machine-to-machine) communications, which will allow mobile workforces to be spread over a larger geographic area. I also think that business managers will become much more mobile, because they will be able to accomplish more and more outside the traditional office setting. You never know — Starbucks may become the regional business offices of the future!