Clouded vision: What to think about when you think about web services

Budget pressures are persuading governments to look to the cloud to improve services while keeping costs down. Max Peterson of Amazon Web Services sets out five questions to ask yourself along the way.

Max Peterson says you need to take moving to the cloud one step at a time – Photo credit: Flickr, john.schultz

Local and national governments are embracing innovation in a bid to develop new ways to engage and serve citizens.

And, in times of shrinking budgets and pressures to meet aggressive timelines, government agencies are actively looking to the cloud to transform their work.

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There are countless benefits to be had from moving to the cloud – from increased efficiency and cost saving to innovative service developments – but every agency, council or department will have different needs.

Here are a few basic questions they should ask before, and as, they embark on their journey.

Do your IT plans align with organisational strategy?

Without understanding the core competencies of the organisation it is next to impossible to identify the areas that are best served through the adoption of cloud.

You should assess legacy applications – do they need greater scalability, reliability, or security than can be provided at the moment? What are the hardware and bandwidth capacity needs? Will the organisation be prepared to scale up and down once deployed? And how can the cloud advance the objectives of IT and the organisation?

Once these questions have been answered, you will be in a much better position to begin planning a cloud strategy that is successful.

A good example of this is Aylesbury Vale District Council. The council was faced with finding a solution that fit their overall strategy – namely, in the face of shrinking budgets, find a technology solution that improved user experience for both employees and citizens, that also reduced the overall cost to the council.

To do this, it needed to rationalise part of its IT infrastructure, decommission its data centre and find an innovative solution to enable secure, faster and cheaper hosting for their legacy applications.

The council set out a cloud strategy that would deliver significant current and long-term savings and at the same time improve resilience and facilitate mobile working.

Moving to the cloud resulted in the council saving 30% of its running costs, without requiring that it be tied down to a long-term commercial commitment.

The authority now has a truly digital solution in place which enables it to focus on providing services to residents, instead of running IT.

What needs to be done first?

Don’t go overboard and begin too many projects all at once. Identify the most critical need first and provide a solution to that issue – for instance cloud collaboration tools to make it easier to share files or work remotely.

It’s crucial to get the collective support of the whole team and gain buy-in from leaders, so starting with something staff will benefit from immediately is also an easy way to get them onside.

You should also be prepared to be flexible and take a periodic fresh look to review progress, which will ensure success throughout the project from design, through development to deployment.

What is your project’s scope?

If an agreed upon scope for the project is not clearly defined at an early stage it can lead to problems later down the line.

Often, when developing citizen services, there is a desire to address all the public’s needs with a single project. However, insufficient resources and changing definitions can make this problematic. With a flexible cloud computing environment, it is possible to tightly focus on a single issue, develop an application that addresses that need and then iterate.

But in order to do that, you must accurately define and minimise the project scope – this will also cut development and administrative costs as well as save on time later down the line.

Scope can be easily determined at the beginning of the work by defining the terms of the project; accurately defining the process – and its boundaries, as well as the interfaces between processes and getting the right people involved. You should also identify any aspects of the work that might still be too large to manage.

Is your project financially feasible?

Once the opportunities of cloud have been evaluated, you need to create a proof of concept to demonstrate the project is financially viable – and will return the investment – from the outset.

This should validate the scope of the project, highlight any problem areas that may arise during the development and test phase, and demonstrate early stage progress through a sample test that determines whether the service satisfies critical requirements and delivers a good user experience.

A good example of this comes from King County, Washington in the US. It created a proof-of-concept to ensure a more efficient and cost-effective solution to replace its tape-based backup system.

King County spent five months backing up data to the cloud, and demonstrated a $1 million cost saving. As a result it was successfully implemented over an on-premises hardware solution.

Have you got the design right?

If released too soon, a service or project may lack the necessary functionality to deliver a good user experience. Similarly, if a service or project release is too defined, the developers who created it may have spent unnecessary time on functionality that is not fit for purpose.

Instead, release a minimally viable service and then adjust it based on feedback. The beauty of cloud-based services means that a number of versions of a service or product can exist at once, enabling developers to make amendments without taking the service down.

This kind of release cycle is more productive and minimises developers working on functionalities that end users may not want.

Transport for London’s flagship website is one example of how this is being done well. It serves over 3 million page views to between 600,000 and 700,000 visitors a day.

In addition to providing a service to users, TfL’s website also serves a growing third-party developer ecosystem. Some 6,000 developers are now engaged in digital projects using TfL’s anonymised open data, spawning 360 mobile apps that help solve London’s travel problems, such as timetable information and live running data.

Since the start of the project, TfL has seen a rise in the number of customers using its website for real-time information – from 51% to 70% – and at the same time the number of customers using third party apps powered by TfL data has risen, from 27% to 40%.

This increase is due to TfL’s ability to iterate quickly on the platform, allowing it to improve its own services and its ability to satisfy real-time demands for live traffic data from the third parties whose services augment TfL’s own.

And don’t forget to ask your users. Soliciting customer input to improve a service or product is not a new concept, but in the modern, customer-centric world, crowdsourcing has become an important tool in finding solutions to business problems.

Tapping into the collective intelligence of the public who use the service can help throughout the design and development phase.


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