Once every dozen years or so, a computing revolution comes along that changes the way we relate to information, entertainment and communications. Powerful mainframes emerged in the 1950s, followed by personal computers in the late 1970s, and then, in the last decade, small and powerful computers like laptops, notebooks and cell phones have begun rapidly morphing into smart phones like Apple's iPhone.
Today, we are standing on the verge of a new computing revolution and Angelenos are poised to lead the way.
The city of Los Angeles is joining a movement that comprises a growing number of local governments and corporations moving information technology systems into the so-called "cloud." Why? Because doing so can lower costs, increase effectiveness and bolster data security.
What technologists like to call the cloud is the idea of centralized computing on tap. The concept is simple. Using large-scale data centers, cloud providers can give individual users access to industrial-strength processing power and storage to anyone with an Internet access device. Just as you turn on a faucet to get water or plug in an appliance to get power, many of the features and functions of stand-alone machines from desktop PCs to super computers are reliably accessible today using cloud services via the Net.
Rhere are advantages to such reconfiguration of computing resources. For instance, cloud processing power is far greater than any personal computer just as the electricity you get from a local power utility is vastly greater than any power you could generate on your own at home or at the office.
Cloud technology may seem novel to some, even arcane to others. But it's already so interwoven into people's lives that many of us don't even know we're using it. Services such as Microsoft's Hotmail, Yahoo's Flickr and Google's YouTube not to mention social networks like MySpace and Facebook use cloud platforms to give users ways to store, manage and share social contacts, messaging, photo albums and videos over the Internet as opposed to on their own devices.
Right now, the city of Los Angeles has an opportunity to embrace the cloud future. It is considering moving its legacy e-mail and office "productivity" applications (word processing, spreadsheets, presentations) onto a cloud platform. It would mean that instead of installing software and data on each city employee's individual computer, an expensive and inefficient process, city workers could tap into those programs from any computer connected to the Internet in ways that would deliver several key benefits. The city and its residents should find this especially attractive for a resource-constrained government in lean economic times.
- First, cloud computing is less expensive than desktop computing. That should matter to the city as it faces a $530 million budget deficit. Instead of paying, PC by PC, for expensive software licenses and IT guys to install and maintain them, the city could procure more affordable software subscriptions with no software to install or update using the cloud. It is akin to the difference between owning your home (and being responsible for its upkeep) and renting a home from a landlord who maintains it for you.
- Second, cloud computing is a more effective way to manage technology. According to the Los Angeles Times, the city's legacy systems today are "slow and antiquated." A spokesman for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called them "Pac-Man-era technology." With cloud-based systems in place, city employees would experience less downtime and find it far easier to work with, store, share and search for documents. Such ease for them would translate into better service experiences for Angelenos interacting with the city.
- Third, cloud computing is energy-efficient. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that consolidating computing power into shared, energy-efficient servers and storage systems could reduce electricity use by up to 55 percent a savings of 74 billion kilowatt hours by 2011 that would cut energy costs by $5.1 billion and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 47 million metric tons. By analogy, the city of Los Angeles could see its energy consumption and associated costs decline significantly.
- Fourth, cloud computing is more secure. Officials with the Los Angeles Police Protective League have raised concerns about storing data on remote computers managed by a third party. They say it would make information more vulnerable to outside attack. In fact, the opposite is true. By outsourcing data management and storage, security goes up, not down. Leading cloud service providers employ specialized security experts and systems that are far better at protecting data from hackers than what individual users, local governments and sophisticated corporations can do themselves. What do you consider more secure for your valuables your local bank's safe-deposit box or a shoebox in your basement?
Based on similar logic, Peter Mell, an official with the computer security division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, told the Washington Post earlier this year that cloud computing could prove safer than many government-run systems.
For example, remember when hackers breached the Pentagon's internal computer system and stole information related to its Joint Strike Fighter program last April? Cybersecurity expert Aamir Lakhani said the cloud "could help prevent this information from leaking."
Competition among large-scale cloud providers is heating up. That's a good thing. It means the city of Los Angeles has many options to choose from. Regardless of the provider selected, one point is clear: Moving information technology systems into the cloud will prove a smart decision that will benefit city employees and taxpayers alike.
Jeffrey F. Rayport is chairman of Marketspace LLC, a digital media advisory company in Cambridge, Mass.
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