Monday, May 16, 2011

If Governments can, Why can't you?

Cross-posted from Everest Group's blog, with minor contextual edits.

All around the world, governments are increasingly stepping up to the Cloud.

Early last week, the U.S. government's General Services Administration (GSA) issued a solicitation for cloud-based email, office automation, and records services, in a contract estimated to be worth up to U.S. $2.5 billion over five years. The GSA expects savings of nearly 45 percent from this move.

By the end of this year, the government CIO’s commitment to a "Cloud First" policy is expected to result in closures of up to 137 data centers across the U.S. While this is only about six percent of the government’s 2000+ data centers, it’s a great start given the extent of change required.

Across the Atlantic, there are plans to consolidate the UK government's 8000 data centers into a dozen centers on an internal G-Cloud. The government also recently released an alpha version of a consolidated government portal (alpha.gov.uk) hosted on Amazon's cloud platform, that aims to centralize access to all government services.

In China, there are plans to build a cloud computing center the "size of a city" within the Heibei province, to primarily serve government departments. 

These moves by governments around the globe represent, for perhaps the first time in recent memory, path-breaking leadership in technology transformation. Change is never an easy subject, especially within the public sphere. Yet the extent of potential benefits from a move to the Cloud is making governments take notice, and make the plunge. 

Private enterprises stand to learn a variety of lessons from these public sector Cloud moves:

a. They set the lead for large private enterprises 

The Cloud is already at the forefront of CIO priorities for 2011. However, many enterprises hesitate to take large technological plunges given the extent of change required from legacy environments. Questions often emerge as to whether Cloud strategies are better suited for small-to-medium environments, and for new next generation initiatives. Enterprises also question how the change can be managed across so many different business units with disparate platforms. 

The scale of attempted governmental transformation should put such questions to rest. If an entity with over a thousand departments and an $80 billion IT budget (a.k.a. the US government) can make the shift, why can't you?

b. They indicate greater tolerance towards risk and security challenges

As other recent discussions on the Everest blog indicate, security and compliance concerns constitute two of the biggest impediments to transition to the Cloud. Yet, with risk sensitive departments such as Defense, Homeland Security and the NSA making the move, it’s clear the public sector’s concerns on these risks have been largely alleviated. 

As the head of the U.S. Cyber Command General Keith Alexander recently testified in a House sub-committee hearing"...moving the programs and the data that users need away from the thousands of desktops we now use - each of which has to be individually secured... to a centralized configuration that will give us wider availability of applications and data combined with tighter control over accesses and vulnerabilities and more timely mitigation of the latter...Indeed, no system that human beings use can be made immune to abuse - but we are convinced the controls and tools that will be built into the cloud will ensure that people cannot see any data beyond what they need for their jobs and will be swiftly identified if they make unauthorized attempts..."

c. They herald greater maturity in the supplier ecosystem

Google and Microsoft have sparred publicly over the last few months over the (alleged) respective lack of FISMA certification on Cloud services offered to U.S. government agencies. As the war for public sector Cloud prospects heats up, so will functionality and service provider maturity. For example, Google Apps for Government now includes specialized security functionality: data location and segregation of government data, necessary to ensure greater security and compliance. 

In addition, as The Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program  (FedRAMP) mechanisms are established later this year to enable government-wide certifications and authorization, more Cloud vendors will step up to meet the bar.

d. They indicate need for concerted CIO-level leadership

Since 2009, when Cloud computing was identified as a Federal IT priority, the U.S. government’s CIO has unveiled a wide range of initiatives: establishing standard definitions; defining Cloud value propositions; launching Cloud store fronts; establishing the "Cloud First" strategy as a keystone of IT strategy; setting clear decision frameworks and timelines; and establishing new Cloud standards. Clearly, Federal Cloud initiatives are leading change across a diverse government organization, much of which has been driven by the CIO’s determined efforts to push through change, despite naysayers and challenges.

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Governments’ migration to the Cloud represents a monumental effort in technology change in a large and complex organization. As private enterprises navigate to the Cloud, they have much to learn from the public sector’s lead.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

All hara in Pokhara

No travelogue can do justice to the experiences of a great trip. Yet they outline great memories.

We decided to take advantage of a long weekend break to check out our northern neighbour - Nepal. With Spicejet flying to Kathmandu at costs of a trip down south, we were enthused enough. The early morning view of the Himalayas was breathtaking.

We also had other reasons to lose breadth. We had just realized after boarding the flight that our credit cards indicated they would not be valid in Nepal. And most of our money was in Indian denominations of 500 and 1000, which were supposedly not accepted in the country. Much of the flight was spent trying to figure strategies to sustain in the piddly hundreds we had with us. Thankfully though, we had little to worry. No sooner than we got into Kathmandu, that we realized that not only were our cards fully valid, but all Indian currency can be used freely too. What a relief!

The touts outside Kathmandu airport remind me of those outside the railway station in Varanasi - like mosquitoes waiting to prey on unsuspecting visitors to charge exorbitant rates. The domestic airport is but a few hundred meters away from the international. And if one has but a few bags, can easily be legged to. As we did.

We found seats on the next flight to Pokhara (the visitor assist at the domestic airport is really helpful), and waited to board. Flights start from rates equivalent to 1000 Rs. Indian! The turboprop to Pokhara was really small though - just 2 columns of 10 seats each. With comments from tourists as to whether the flight would actually take off (or land), we were off. The half hour journey was fun, with a beautiful low view of mountains.

Pokhara is a charming small little town, and the starting point for the Annapurna trek. With supposedly 7 lakes around town (the large one near the market is a perpetually glittering shade of blue) and surrounded by mountains, its a beautiful retreat. In addition, its a great back-packer town. The lakeside market area is the coolest I've seen amongst all the backpacker hangouts I've been to: Bangkok, Koh Tao, Kowloon, Leh, and even Goa.

We stayed at a place called the Castle Resort, which is a kilometer or two out of town and atop a hillock overlooking the lake. Castle, is a beautiful resort in itself, and caters to slightly upmarket groups. It has a beautiful swimming pool, a great bar and rooms which offer a stunning view of the lake. In addition, Joe, the proprieter, is a super cool guy. The only downside is the distance from the town center and the approach - a bad broken road up-hill. In hindsight, the best place to stay is near the lakeside market - there are lots of guest houses and hotels, and the environment is amazing.

Sunrise at Sarangkot
Sunrise at Sarangkot, Nepal
There are quite a few points to visit around Pokhara town. The sun-rise at Sarangkot is beautiful, with stunning views of the snow-capped Annapurna and fish-tail peaks. The World Peace Pagoda atop the hill is neat and offers beautiful views of the town. The Devi's falls is freaky, and the cave temple in front is a subterranean adventure. The local town market itself is quaint, with even a Marwadi eatery that served us deliciously hot pooris and jalebis. Yet, the best place in my view is the lakeside market - colourful, lots of variety, cheap even by Indian standards and with a happening night life.

World Peace Pagoda
World Peace Pagoda
After staying at Pokhara for 2 days, we took the flight back to Kathmandu, promising ourselves that we would be back, for longer. Pokhara is clearly a wonderful place to relax on a long week's holiday, with a trek or two thrown in.

Back in Kathmandu, we found a great guest house to stay, right in the center of Thamel, through a friend's recommendation. Thamel is a bustling, colorful backpacker hangout, with crowds from all over the world. A shopper's delight, the food is great too!

Somehow, Kathmandu reminds me of Varanasi. A crowded, dusty, Hindu town, and seemingly lost in a different century. Sadly, they have even taken after us Indians in the widespread lack of sanitation.

The Pashupatinath temple is a large, crowded Hindu temple, with architecture that reminds me of Kerala's. The large Nandi up-front is quite distinctive. The Lingam is quite unique too, with four different facets of Shiva carved on it (unlike Indian ones which are plain). While queues abound, the easiest way to bypass these is to ask one of the 'guide's' to show you around. They know the guards and give you the enough access within 10 minutes to do the works. Beware though, they fleece you too - so be careful of what they tell you.

Boundnath Kathmandu
Boudhnath, Kathmandu
Boudhnath is the most distinct Buddhist shrine in Kathmandu. Unlike Pashupatinath, it admits visitors of all religions (when will we Hindus change?). With beautiful, colorful carvings and shops all around, it's a worthy visit. The eye's painted atop the shrine are, by far, the most common memorabilia in Kathmandu.

We closed the day, checking out Darbar square. Thamel is quite close to the square and a trip atop a cycle-rickshaw is reminiscent of old Delhi. Has quite a market around and feels like Chandni Chowk.

As we had started our trip to Nepal, a lot of people back home had cautioned us about a lot of things - not to stay out at night, not to wander off alone, to beware of hate crimes, etc. Frankly, we saw none of these. If anything, people went out of their way to help us out, at the airports, markets, shops, and in the temples. We definitely plan to go back, for a much longer trip, to see more of beautiful countryside.

To those who seek to follow: Spicejet flies twice a day from Delhi to Kathmandu. So do Jet and Kingfisher. Indian currency can be used all over Nepal, and all Indian credit cards work (despite what's written on them!). Costs overall are lesser than India. Flights are the best way to travel between Nepali cities. Pokhara feels like Goa, with much lesser crowds around.