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Feature | Cloud Services

Views on Cloud:
R Chandrashekhar      Mathew V Korath         Som Satsangi
Alok Bharadwaj     Ravi Venkatesan Kiran Karnik

Cloud Computing, complete service enablement on a hosted infrastructure, may well be the next big thing in IT

It was in November last year that state-owned Employee State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) joined hands with private sector companies for deploying 31,000 virtual desktops in ESIC offices and clinics across the country. As part of its ‘Project Panchdeep’, ESIC has chosen to deploy these virtual desktops which will then connect to a cloud computing environment in ESIC data centres. This move towards cloud computing, which many say will signal the next IT revolution, has only just begun in India.

As Ravi Venkatesan, Chairman, Microsoft Corporation India, says, “it is only once in every 15-20 years that something revolutionary happens in the information technology sector and cloud computing certainly has the power to change the way IT will be used in future. Cloud computing, properly implemented, provides users with greater flexibility, portability, and choice in their computing options. It allows IT to be delivered in multiple ways.”

But what is cloud computing? The US National Institute of Standards and Technology defines cloud computing as “a model for enabling on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.” In simple terms, it describes a new model for IT services based on the Internet, typically involving the provision of dynamically scalable and often virtualised resources as a service. The cloud computing paradigm has evolved over the years from a basic IT infrastructure (data centres) to Platform as a Service (PaaS), and then from Software as a Service (SaaS) to complete service enablement on a hosted infrastructure. At the same time, virtualisation has emerged as a key enabler for the cloud computing paradigm.

In India, cloud computing research and development has yet to take off in a big way despite its potential in terms of both human power and marketing products. It has remarkable relevance given the fact that cloud computing provides sharing of common resources at multiple locations in a very economical way. One reason for this slow uptake is that many feel that a suitable business model is yet to emerge. Says H Krishnamurthy of the Indian Institute of Science, “Ultimately, what is important is to ensure that one is able to get the defined performance, scalability, availability, fault tolerance, security, access control, conformance to standards and interoperability.”

Concurs Kiran Karnik, former President, Nasscom, “At the outset, what is needed is that we re-engineer our processes and systems. Today, the practice is that we pick up a process as it is and then induct technology to make it more efficient. But that is not the effective way of ensuring efficiency. Instead, what is needed is that we re-engineer processes, making them simpler, open, transparent and more efficient. And, we should use technology to do this.” While adopting cloud services, Karnik says “we must first work out the cost, time and user-effectiveness of the new system.”

This is especially important as governments, both Central and State, are increasingly turning to digitisation of records and processes in an effort to improve efficiency and ensure better service delivery. And a shift to the cloud would mean that an effective document management system is in place. Says Alok Bharadwaj, Senior Vice President, Canon India, “In essence, within the government or in any private enterprise, there are four points in paper movement, the first is ‘entry gate’, then comes the ‘flow of paper’, the third is the ‘security point’, and last is the ‘output’. So, any move to increased digitisation will need an effective document management solution that securely integrates paper movement in the form of electronic workflow, enabling secure service delivery.”

So, what is opportunity for the government in delivering public services through cloud computing? As R Chandrashekhar, IT Secretary, says collaboration on e-governance via cloud technologies may include 90 per cent of the citizen services, which have not yet been rolled out. It will also make project execution faster. “An issue here—both from a citizen perspective and from a governmental perspective—is that can we have some manner of sharing between the government and the private sector, so that the speed of rollout of citizen-centric services becomes faster. Today, as the common services centres are rolling out, the lack of sufficient number of citizen-centric services is becoming painfully evident. The question here is that are there approaches that can help speed up this whole process.”

Pointing out such approaches exist, Som Mittal, President Nasscom, says “it is technology that is the great leveller. It can actually help lift those at the bottom of the pyramid. Today, we have a huge pool of resources, whether it is with the State or with the private sector or even using virtualisation, and this infrastructure can be used to shift the government from a capex (capital expenditure) model to an opex (operating expenditure) model.

Industry experts say that a major advantage of using cloud computing is that the IT infrastructure need not be set up by the government nor does it have to train its employees to become computer savvy. In addition, because of the ability of the technology to handle a large number of transactions, citizens can look forward to less congestion bottlenecks. The government can also make significant savings in terms of lower project costs if it rolls out e-governance services through the cloud.

As Venkatesan says, “cloud computing has caused the architectural disruption of IT service delivery. Today, you can have your private cloud, where only you use the services, or you have a public cloud, where others can also use the services or you can have a hybrid cloud. Not only this, you can also pay for these services in different ways—pay per use, bid and pay or pay for the time at which you use the services. Again, you can pay only for the software, only for the platform or for both. ” According to him, “cloud computing offers the Indian government—which is currently on massive computerisation drive—to leapfrog in technology adoption and come up at par with other IT-savvy governments.”

Says a Gartner Research report, the SaaS market under cloud computing is expected to grow at an average annual rate of 19.4 per cent through 2013, easily outpacing the projected growth of the overall business management software market. And it is a growing market that has got global majors like Amazon, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Google, and IBM to set up cloud computing centres in the country. To determine how big the cloud computing opportunity might be and what it will take to capture that opportunity, IDC, the global IT industry body, has tried to separate cloud computing from cloud services. According to IDC, when people talk about cloud computing, they are usually referring to the online delivery and consumption models for business and consumer services. In most cases, however, the “computing” lies behind a more recognisable service, like banking or shopping or online storage.

Pointing to the mobile revolution in the country, industry experts say that the increasing confluence of technology and greater internet access represents an opportunity that the government must exploit. In fact, they say that the Indian government is at an advantage in this regard as it does not have too many legacy systems that may prevent the shift to cloud computing and virtualisation for delivery of citizen-centric services. Cloud Computing represents the confluence of technology and business developments in the Internet, Web services, computing systems, and applications that have evolved over the past few decades.

Says Neelam Dhawan, Managing Director, HP India, “the client-server model that dominated the mainframe era and the more-recent desktop era is changing with newer, Internet-based technologies. Cloud computing will further make computers lighter as users won’t need the kind of hardware that desktops have. To think that PCs will be the device that will be used to access information is erroneous. Mobile is surely the way to go. Mobile phones today are far outselling any other similar devices and they can be used to reach out to the last mile. We need to develop more applications that lead to increased mobile computing.”

According to Dhawan, “todays citizens, whether they are in urban centres like Mumbai or Delhi or in the rural areas of the country, are all technology aware and not technology averse. This, therefore, makes it imperative for the government to hasten the roll-out of more citizen centric services using technology as the backbone.”

Adds Jai Menon, Group CIO, Bharti Enterprises, “today, with the mobile revolution, we already have in place the necessary coverage of almost the entire country. This cloud of connectivity now only needs to be linked to IT applications to be able to deliver a whole set of services to the people. What is needed that the industry comes up with an end-to-end model that delivers government’s citizen centric services in a cost-efficient manner. Already, some state departments have started implementing certain services, using the private sector as the service provider.”

In fact, the Kerala Government has already initiated plans to introduce cloud computing into its e-governance domain to innovate and reshape IT usage in the State. It feels that with cloud computing, there would not be any need for the government to invest on expensive computing resources, thereby helping it to use the maximum available spare capacity of its IT hardware and software investments. Cloud computing will help in the pooling of resources into large clouds in such cases and will increase the utilisation of resources effectively. As a first step, the Kerala State Information Technology Mission (KSITM) has decided that a cloud computing test bed be set up on the premises of the Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management Kerala. The Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC), Chennai, will assist in conducting the feasibility study to set up a cloud environment for the state data centre (SDC).

Says Menon, “Small and medium businesses tend to benefit the most from cloud computing as they are looking for a CIO (Chief Information Officer) in the cloud. And we at Airtel become their cloud CIO. There are no start-up costs and the opex model is more inexpensive due to low costs vis-a-vis owning the hardware and software licences.”

Mobiles to Drive Cloud Computing

Cloud computing is a rapidly developing technology that can help companies leverage IT for growth, sharpen their ‘green’ imprint and lead to better user experience, says Neelam Dhawan, Managing Director, HP India

Computers are evolving: from huge mainframes in the 1960s, minicomputers in the 1970s, personal computers in the 1980s, to cell phones and smartphones in the 2000s. Similarly, computing is evolving. While the first billion users of IT, metamorphically speaking were all premium users-only they could afford to pay for the services that the IT companies made available to them-the next billion will be low-cost users, most probably using their mobile phone as their computing medium. And just as one pays for an electricity bill on the basis of the power consumed, these low-cost users are likely to follow a 'pay-on-use' model for their computing needs.

And it is this that is forcing IT companies like HP to focus on new areas like paperless businesses, technology for the illiterates and on delivering innovations that help improve people's lives. In the computing space itself, increasingly economics and technology are being used to deliver solutions that are more effective and at reduced costs. For example, in the last few years, HP has redesigned its computers so that they run on lesser power, by using lesser metal and plastic, leading to large savings of precious resources. But that is only on the hardware front.

Today, technologies are fast being developed to make the mobile phone their base computer. It is also a sector that HP is increasingly focusing on; today, it is working to develop solutions that can enable one to access one's bank accounts and make and receive secure payments, assured that the security of such transactions remains sacrosanct. But, all these link back to storage and server applications. And, this is an area where the next computing revolution is likely to take place.
With costs set to become even more important drivers of technology-not that they are not even today-computing on demand is going to be the new paradigm that will drive IT industry the world over. The idea that an IT user can get software, services and platforms on demand, scalable to meet changes in one's requirements, payable only on use may appear to be a 'cloud', but it is a reality that is increasingly shaping computing technologies globally.

Just as one turns on the tap to get water or plug an appliance to get electricity, one can access most features and functions that reside on a personal computer through the internet. That is the concept of 'cloud computing', an idea that is changing the possibilities for computing by giving individual users access to an array of powerful applications and services through the internet.

Cloud computing is not something that is new. In one form, it is an idea that captured global imagination through services like Hotmail, Facebook and Twitter, where all the messages or data that one sends reside in a centralised server.

Consumers, small- and mid-sized businesses, large-scale enterprises, and even the government all of them today use such a 'cloud', connecting to it through the internet, using a laptop, a cell phone, or a smartphone. But this presents only one small leg of what the cloud computing experience is all about. From services, to software and then to platforms, today all these are available in a variety of formats and collectively they make up the cloud. It is a technology that can help companies leverage IT for growth, is essentially 'greener', and leads to better user experience.

In the cloud, applications are accessible anywhere, anytime, and storage becomes, for all intents and purposes, infinite. The result is a dramatic advance for users in accessibility, specialisation, collaboration, and ubiquitous access to computing power and storage.

And as the Economist noted in an article in June 2008, 'while most people depend on personal computers more and more at home, and at work, we are using them in far different ways than we did 10 or even five years ago. We are using less data and software that sit on our hard drives, and spending more time on our web browsers, accessing data and applications that stream through the web. We are more recently seeing the transition of services from PCs to any device with Internet connections, including more portable devices like mobile phones. This is just the beginning'.

In fact, in January this year, a Gartner study revealed that cloud computing and virtualisation will be the top priorities for CIOs this year as businesses shift from traditional on-premise software and hardware to hosted solutions. It said that companies will invest less in hardware in the coming years and more in hosted solutions. “They have aspired to this shift for years, but economic, strategic and technological changes have only recently made it feasible,” said the Gartner survey. It found that business process improvement topped the list of business concerns, followed by reducing IT costs. A number of firms have been able to save money in recent years by switching to cloud computing solutions and outsourcing the purchase and maintenance of hardware to a web-based service provider. These services leverage broadband internet connections that were not available to many firms until the past decade.

A major concern against cloud computing is ensuring data security, cross-country data migration and data recovery. Here, industry analysts cite the example of Project RACE (Rapid Access Computing Environment), an initiative of the US Department of Defence that is not very unlike the on-demand cloud computing technology put in place by Amazon. Says Dhawan, “one way that this can be controlled is by formulating stringent standards for all players offering services in the cloud.”

Cloud computing is an emerging trend, and the Indian IT scenario appears to present a good business model. But, as one industry expert points out, “in India, we have not seen much beyond the storage aggregation as far as cloud computing and virtualisation are concerned. We have to do a lot of work to go beyond storage aggregation. If you look at total IT solution architecture, which has large number of point products, which are heterogeneous and distributed, cloud computing takes on a different meaning.”

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