Several years ago, the city of Aspen, Colo., was being hit with malware several times a week, mostly in the form of drive-by attacks resulting from users unwittingly visiting malicious websites.
Once the city switched from its on-premises security appliance, the problem subsided.
“Our rate of infections has dropped almost literally to zero,” says John Sobieralski, network coordinator for the city. “If we see something every few weeks, that’s a lot.”
Aspen opted for OpenDNS, a cloud-based network security service that provides automatic protection against attacks. Sobieralski is still not sure why the city’s onsite solution was so much less effective, given that the vendor was constantly pushing out updates. But the cloud service has proved to be a winner, in both performance and price.
“It’s quite a bit less expensive than an on-premises solution,” says Sobieralski. “There are a lot of cloud services out there that give you a lot of bang for your buck.”
Security is just one of the many services that state and local governments are migrating to the cloud, which includes storage, telephony, email, collaboration software, backup and recovery, virtual machines and more. That robust menu of options has even spawned a new acronym: XaaS, for Anything or Everything as a Service.
Instead of thinking of the cloud as something that might make sense for one or two services, public-sector IT shops increasingly consider the cloud as the default.
“When we’re looking at new applications or upgrades to legacy applications, cloud-first is kind of the rule,” says Sobieralski, who has also moved the city’s email to the cloud and will deploy a new enterprise resource planning solution. “It doesn’t mean we always go that way, but we look at whether there is a good cloud-based solution for something we want to do.”
Many cities and states began their venture into the cloud by migrating email. Hosted websites and content management systems were also popular early steps, says Shawn McCarthy, research director for IDC Government Insights. As cloud matured, “people found that they could get special things that they needed, that were already hosted,” including database query, social media and business analytics tools.
McCarthy notes that small cities in particular are using cloud-based services to add new features to their websites, such as online bill pay and permitting. “Hosting companies allow them to choose the modules they want,” he says. “Setting up all those pieces yourself is very expensive.”
The Ohio Department of Administrative Services moved into the cloud to replace an aging Centrex system with hosted Voice over IP. The state began its switch to VoIP in mid-2012 and currently has more than 21,000 users on the cloud-based system, says Eric Schmidt, the department’s IT architect.
With hosted voice, the state has added video functionality to around 80 percent of its phones — a feature that Schmidt says can enhance collaboration. The solution also provides greater flexibility, he says. “This allows folks to become more mobile. You can go to another building and log in, and that becomes your phone. Or you can just pick up your phone and take it with you and plug it in when you get there.”
While the cost of buying servers versus leasing is important, it’s far from the only factor that governments should consider when exploring the cloud.
The city of Charlotte, N.C., migrated its contact center telephone systems to the cloud (and is looking to do the same for other telephone users with VoIP) in part to avoid the cost of supporting those systems.
“Phone systems are extremely complex,” says Bellverie Ross, senior manager for innovation and technology for the city. “Maintaining the system onsite is expensive and involves high-salaried engineers.”
Moving the systems to the cloud also turns systems into an ongoing operational expense, rather than requiring a large upfront capital expenditure — an important consideration that can have ramifications during the budgeting process of many municipalities.
“The way government capital funding functions, we would have had to constantly go back and get new money whenever we wanted system upgrades for an on-premises solution,” says Ross. “With hosted, we don’t need to do that; it is baked into the cost.”
Cleveland Public Library saved money by migrating more than 3,000 users to the cloud, switching from a mix of email platforms spread across more than 40 library systems in the CLEVNET network in favor of Office 365. “The cost of ownership was getting too high,” says Larry Finnegan, acting director of IT for Cleveland’s library system. The switch gave users more storage space and also provided access to Microsoft’s other cloud tools. But Finnegan notes that the decision really came down to cost savings.
The cloud isn’t a good fit — or less expensive — for every application, however. For example, Finnegan says it makes more sense to keep the library’s online catalog system in-house.
“It’s giving our customers what they need, instead of a generic one-for-all,” he says. “What we do is different from what some other libraries want or need. Finnegan adds that moving to a hosted catalog system wouldn’t save the library any money.
IDC’s McCarthy recommends that every organization perform a return-on-investment analysis when considering what applications to send to the cloud. Such an analysis will include the cost of the solution, of course, but also other factors such as how much physical infrastructure, staff and licensing an organization already has in place to support an on-premises solution. “If you made all that investment for yourself five or six years ago, you’re probably not going to migrate immediately,” he notes.
Sobieralski says that while Aspen has only migrated a few applications to the cloud, the number will likely increase. “Any time we have a project, we look at whether it makes sense to do it in the cloud, and it’s possible that in the future, we may move there more and more,” he says. “I think we will.”