Friday, October 31, 2008

Cloud Computing -- Big Bang or Slow Evolution?

Nothing is bigger in terms of high tech buzz than cloud computing, as I mentioned in my last post. It is definitely the flavor of the month and all the major online, hardware and software vendors are finding their niches in the cloud ecosystem.

Cloud computing is really nothing new, but rather the ongoing evolution of Software as a Service (SaaS) or, if you go back a bit further, application service providers (ASPs) which took the baton from Internet service providers (ISPs). Hey, if you want to go for broke, you can trace cloud computing further back to pre-Internet packet switching networks like CompuServe. Just don't send me email to 76011,1362 -- my first email address on CompuServe.

We are not likely to witness a stampede to the cloud, but rather a slow migration, one service at a time. Businesses for the most part still prefer to host their own email, for instance, although the majority of consumers use cloud-based email services. Smaller businesses are more likely to give up on premise email hosting to save the expense of server infrastructure and dedicated IT staff. Large enterprises are likely to consider email important enough to maintain internally, especially where regulations and potential legal issues make it desirable. Email often contains confidential and proprietary information.

Public sector will move more slowly. Already many government agencies use hosted services such as spam filtering which are essentially cloud-based. Outward facing services could be moved to the cloud since they are already in the network DMZ.

Some government agencies will never move to the cloud. The most obvious members of this group are armed forces and the intelligence community, but health and human services, benefits payments and taxation are no more likely to jump at this chance. But this doesn't mean that cloud computing is irrelevant to them. Rather, they will be clouds of their own which exist entirely within the borders of their computer networks. They could take advantage of the scalability and performance of the latest technology without putting sensitive data beyond their walls.

I'm eagerly awaiting the briefing on the Microsoft Professional Developers conference when our team returns from Los Angeles next week.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Microsoft Heads for the Cloud

Microsoft often uses its Professional Developers Conference (PDC) as a launching pad for major product announcements. This week at the PDC in Los Angeles, CA, was no exception. For most of us, the most far-reaching news is Microsoft's venture into cloud computing with a new operating system called Azure. Developers can now get their hands on the community technology preview version of the software and begin learning how it will be relevant for remote hosting of web applications.

Microsoft is not the first vendor to offer cloud computing, but it has many advantages over the first pioneers of the field. The community of Microsoft developers is large and active. Using familiar tools such as Visual Studio will unleash tremendous activity as well as harness the existing code base of .NET applications.

A number of services from Microsoft will be available right out of the gate, drawing on the Microsoft Live services. These include authentication, collaboration and document management (SharePoint), messaging (Exchange Online) and Dynamics CRM.

The big question is how much government agencies will want to move to the cloud and when. I will be exploring this topic in greater detail in future posts.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Microsoft Citizen Service Platform

As I mentioned in my article on the Microsoft Single View Platform, this year is a particularly rich one for new frameworks and platforms out of Redmond. In particular, I cannot recall so many initiatives that are directed toward the public sector.

One of the most important of these is the Microsoft Citizen Service Platform (CSP). Microsoft describes it as a solution set for local government to improve services to citizens and enhance interagency communication. Like SVP, CSP does not include any new products and there is nothing new to buy. Instead, it illustrates how local government can use the Microsoft products they may aleady own to stand up citizen self service portals, case management systems, document management and enhanced communications.

CSP is a European import. It began with the Microsoft global public sector organization, and achieved early wins in the United Kingdom, Portugual, then spread to the Caribbean, Australia and other countries. The United States is a new frontier for CSP, and Microsoft is currently holding events around the country to promote the platform. I attended one this week in Reston, VA.

CSP solution templates include:
  • Communication applications: e-mail, calendars, and real-time communications
  • Search: Desktop and Internet content search
  • Citizen portal: A Web site that provides search capabilities, links to other Internet resources, and functionalities for personalizing information and services pages for citizens and businesses
  • Interactive forms: Online forms for citizens and businesses
  • Geographical information systems (GIS): Tools for cartographic data entry, mapping/spatial query, and visualization of maps
  • Intranet portal: Provides staff with an integrated view of information across an organization with single sign-on to Web-based applications
  • Web space: Personalized Web pages where citizens can create and post their own content and create their own e-mail accounts
  • Citizen contact center (citizen relationship management): The ability to provide multichannel access (phone, Web, e-mail, and instant messaging) to the information and services of a government agency and to integrate with case management
  • Case management: Systems to assess, plan, perform, monitor, and evaluate the options and services required by constituents
  • Document and record management: Adding documents and other media into collections, formatting and conversion, organizing and maintaining information, and managing user access and editing rights
  • Electronic procurement: E-commerce solutions with e-catalogs and e-marketplace functions that enable online ordering, payment, and tendering functions for managing the entire tendering call, negotiation, and award
  • Dashboards/balanced scorecards: Solutions to measure, analyze, and optimize financial and operational performance management processes using predefined key performance indicators
  • Financial Management/Reporting: ERP and Financial Applications

These templates are not full blown solutions but they are a great starting point and offer insights on how multiple products can be integrated to solve a business problem. If you are a local government customer of Microsoft, you can get your hands on them through your Microsoft account executive or contact me directly.

So what does this mean to Microsoft's public sector customers? First, it indicates Microsoft's willingness to think beyond the box of single applications. The ability to merge multiple products into coherent solutions is essential for the special needs of government. Too often vendors are trapped by the artificial barriers they create among their products.

Second, there is a growing brain trust at Microsoft that is learning how government operates and tackling the practical problems faced by public sector customers. For instance, few governments can keep up with the incessant upgrades offered by the information technology industry. Facing this problem squarely will help customers use technology more effectively. I have witnessed Microsoft hiring a number of former government officials who can bring their extensive experience to bear, improving products and service offerings. For instance, in my area alone, Microsoft hired Kim Nelson, former Chief Information Office of the Environmental Protection Agency, Chris Cortez, former Commanding General of the Marine Corps Recruiting Command, and several other former federal officials. In the central region, Michael Easley, the former CIO of Tarrant County, Texas not the North Carolina governor), brings his unique experience and perspective to Microsoft to help state and local government customers.

The third benefit of CSP is that it encourages Microsoft service providers to reuse the CSP framework, making their solutions more interoperable and easier to maintain. It may also trigger a healthy competition for integrators to polish up their solutions, share them with Microsoft in whole or in part, and provide fresh intellectual capital to a sector that needs new solutions and new approaches to its significant challenges.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Austerity Brings Efficiency

There are many reasons to bemoan the bursting of the real estate bubble, the crash of the banking system, and the U.S. recession. But there will be benefits from this mess as there always are when we enter this phase of an economic cycle. Businesses based on euphoria are not good businesses in the long run. We will witness the disappearance of many businesses based on hype rather than delivering real value to their customers. Surviving businesses will find new ways to make their operations more efficient and effective.

Government will also benefit from austerity by being forced to prioritize and to become more efficient. Programs will be cancelled, and those that survive will learn to survive with reduced funding. Although government agencies themselves rarely face extinction in the way that businesses do, they will be reorganized. Elected officials, on the other hand, know that they could be one election away from spending more time with their families.

How can government agencies save money, particularly in information technology?
  1. Use what you already own. Check your hardware and software inventory. You may find that you own licenses for products you have not rolled out into production. Be careful not to purchase new software that duplicates functions of products you already own.
  2. Get people trained. Hardware and software can't help you if people don't know how to use them. Most of the time we use only a fraction of the features in the products we think we know. Sometimes I will sit with a super-user and just watch how they interact with a product. I usually come away with several ideas to make me more productive.
  3. Streamline your business processes. Take a hard look at bottlenecks in your processes. Are they necessary? Could you take a shorter path to your destination?
  4. Be strategic. What is your core mission? Do your projects and initiatives help you achieve it? If what you are doing strays too far from your mission, you will find your agency adrift.

I'm going to stop here for now, because these are plenty. It's far better to finish the projects you have than to start new ones you won't finish.

Austerity can clear the mind and strengthen the body. With greater focus, you are more likely to achieve your goals. These principles are no less true for government than they are in your personal life.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Microsoft Launches Single View Platform

For those of us who have chosen the Microsoft platform, the good news is that we have many products from which to choose. Microsoft has an array of server and client products, as well as online services, that cover everything from collaboration to commerce, business intelligence to geographical information systems, personal productivity to accounting.

Sometimes the sheer number of choices can be daunting, so Microsoft is initiating new offerings that help us weave the various products into cohesive solutions. The goal is to bridge the gaps between product groups and provide additional documentation and code to integrate multiple Microsoft products.

The most recent release for government customers is the Microsoft Single View Platform (SVP). This helps you put information into geographic context. It provides:

  • Data visualization

  • Real-time or near real-time data links

  • Integration data from multiple, disparate sources

  • Access controls

  • Interoperability with other systems

The heart of SVP is integration of line of business and business intelligence systems with Microsoft Virtual Earth. This means you can show the geographical distribution of contagious disease cases, for instance, or traffic bottlenecks on your roads and highways.

You can get a better idea of what SVP is all about from the download section, particularly the white paper and the CRM datasheet. Here is a screenshot from a solution that Information Strategies developed with SVP:





I expect that Microsoft will add more products to SVP in the future, and that multi-product initiatives like SVP will be more common at Microsoft in the future.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Dynamics CRM: What is this XRM Thing?

In my white paper, I discussed using Microsoft Dynamics CRM as a development platform for solutions that go beyond the traditional definition of customer relationship management. This trend is getting wider exposure and has resulted in a new acronym, XRM, where the X stands for whatever solution you might need which is a good fit for the CRM platform.

As Dylan Haskins reported in his blog, David Yack the CTO of Colorado Technology Consultants, published a book a few weeks ago called CRM as a Rapid Development Platform.

As I talk with clients and technologists, I'm finding more and more creative uses to which they are applying Dynamics CRM. For instance, this year alone I have seen public sector solutions such as:
  • Government recruiting
  • Consumer fraud case management
  • Electronic permitting
  • Task management
  • Event management
  • Asset management
  • Nuisance abatement
  • Contagious disease tracking, and
  • Field inspection
Does this mean that CRM is a Swiss Army knife? Yes, in a way it is a flexible tool that has many uses. But what I really see from CRM is the natural evolution of the languages, tools and frameworks we have worked with for decades to build business solutions. Remember 4GL, code generators, and CASE tools? All these were designed to simplify custom software development, encourage more efficient coding, and reduce technical risk. CRM does much the same thing.

For public sector, the stakes are high. It is not hard to find prominent examples of failed IT projects that cost tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. Would CRM have prevented these trainwrecks? Hard to say, but there is potential for significant cost (and time) savings by using this development platform. Visionary government IT professionals will certainly evaluate this option and compare it to traditional custom development.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Introducing Gov and the City

For more than twenty-eight years, I have lived in Washington, DC, the biggest government city of them all. I created this blog to share my thoughts on government, not only federal but also state and local government. Specifically, my areas of interest is information technology for government.

I came to DC back in 1980 to pursure a career in public affairs. I earned a Master of Science in Foreign Service at Georgetown University, with a concentration in international security affairs.

My first job outof graduate school was at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), at that time associated with Georgetown University. I started as a research assistant, then worked through the ranks to research associate and ultimately fellow in international security affairs. I wrote books and papers and spoke to conferences.

What a heady time it was, back at the beginning of the 1980s, especially for a foreign policy wonk. The United States had been battered overseas, and morale was low both in the defense and intelligence communities. It was exciting to see academic theories put into practice, and the gratifying results on the world stage.

I ended up entering the information technology field while I was at the think tank. I helped write a proposal to create an international network in the field of Soviet studies. I traveled around the country helping connect scholars to the network and worked on building databases.

In 1987, I started a company, Information Strategies (Infostrat), focused on software for the public sector. My first contracts were building custom databases, largely relating to defense programs. Next, I won some work with Smithsonian Institution and Pepsi-Cola. We ultimately ended up specializing in Microsoft solutions. Today our business is divided among federal, state and local, and commercial customers.

I couldn't get the think tank out of my blood, so I applied what I learned at Georgetown and CSIS to my business. I stepped up my publishing efforts and wrote a half dozen computer books and numerous articles. Best of all, I surrounded myself with technology and subject matter experts much more capable than me.

We have written a number of books on software and technology topics. The most recent was on Microsoft's portal platform, particularly SharePoint. We are also publishing white papers, such as a comparison of SharePoint and Dynamics CRM, and Using Dynamics CRM as a Development Platform.