5 characteristics that define a cloud

20 May 2014 | Dan Mannion, Director, Public Sector Cloud Strategy

cloud computingLet’s clear up some confusion: Cloud computing is not the same as IT outsourcing or managed services, though some vendors make it sound that way. Just because your infrastructure is managed by a service provider doesn’t mean you’re now in the cloud—or reaping its renowned efficiencies and cost-savings. To truly be a cloud service, the provider must be using current cloud technologies and architectures to deliver five defining capabilities, which are outlined by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Look for them to make sure you’re getting the real thing:

1. On-demand self-service

When your computing services are in the cloud, the IT team can provision resources whenever they need them, without the provider’s help. This enables your agency to respond in real-time to spikes and dips in demand. The city of Miami took advantage of this cloud capability when it deployed a 311 system and disaster-recovery model on Windows Azure. It gives them scalable, on-demand services so they can adjust their computing and storage capacity through Microsoft data centers. 

2. Broad network access

Because it makes services available over the network, the cloud frees governments from standardizing on specific devices or servers. That way, constituents can access services from any device, whether they’re on mobile phones, tablets, laptops, or desktops. In its first move into the cloud, the UK’s Transport for Greater Manchester hosted an open data platform to foster mobile app development—and enable greater mobile device usage by its employees, citizens, and visitors.

3. Resource pooling

In the cloud, your IT team can access a pool of seemingly limitless resources shared among multiple organizations. This helps them meet fluctuating IT demands. So if your taxing agency processes most receipts in the 30 days around the deadline, you won’t have to invest in servers that sit idle the rest of year. Clearly, this is how clouds save governments the most money. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Council of Ministers, which oversees more than 40 institutions, recently built a private national cloud that they estimate has already saved them several hundred-thousand Euros.

4. Rapid elasticity

Government services need to scale like no others—to entire populations. The cloud’s elasticity gives you IT services that scale according to your needs, at a very low cost. An example is the cloud-hosted BeAMartian website. This site, created for the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), handled huge numbers at launch: 2.5 million images, 35,000 registered users, and 500,000 queries, plus spikes in usage that required immediate tripling of server capacity.

5. Measured service

In the cloud, your resource usage is metered, so you no longer pay for computing power you won’t need. Instead, you only pay for what you use. In New South Wales, the Department of Education used cloud services to test 30,000 students in 650 schools at the same time. The cost of hosting the online exam in the cloud was just A$500—compared to the $200,000 investment in server infrastructure that would have been required for the department to host the exam on its own.

Use this checklist with your service providers to see how much they really understand the “cloud service” they’re providing. And share this definition with your colleagues to help them understand the cloud’s true benefits. For even more details, read NIST’s complete cloud definition (PDF), which also includes three service models and four deployment models. The more information you have, the less likely you are to settle for an imposter.  

Have a comment or opinion on this post? Let me know @Microsoft_Gov. Or e-mail us at ongovernment@microsoft.com.

Dan Mannion
Director, Public Sector Cloud Strategy

About the Author

Dan Mannion | Director, Public Sector Cloud Strategy

Dan Mannion leads Microsoft’s Worldwide Public Sector cloud sales business, delivering the most innovative solutions to government, health, and education customers around the globe. Read more