Unified communications applications resonate well with today’s budget-strapped federal agencies. These new tools help to streamline processes, increase productivity and transform the way people work. And they typically do so at a lower cost than legacy communication systems.
But many organizations struggle with how to best make the move to UC. Do they deploy infrastructure-based UC solutions at each facility? Or do they purchase cloud-based services instead?
Clearly many federal buyers of unified communications and collaboration solutions still prefer a premises-based approach. But there are signs that the tide may be shifting and that cloud solutions are gaining momentum. In fact, a wide variety of departments and agencies are now pursuing cloud-based initiatives (or have plans to do so) – from the Departments of Interior, Agriculture and Veterans Affairs to Homeland Security and Defense.
What’s driving this move to the cloud? Seven key factors are fueling demand – from policy changes to the compelling pain points that cloud solutions address.
1: A Realignment of Policies
In 2011 as the U.S. struggled to recover from the depths of the Great Recession, the U.S. Chief Information Officer issued a “cloud first” policy that requires agencies to adopt cloud solutions whenever a secure, reliable and cost-effective option is available. The intent is to drive down costs, improve agility and scalability, spur innovation in the use of collaboration, social media and mobility, and empower federal workers with the same types of technology they commonly use at home. Many agency CIOs have since thrown their weight behind the initiative and have cascaded the new policy through their ranks.
To bring “cloud first” to life, though, federal purchasing mechanisms previously aligned with the buy/install/maintain approach had to be revamped. Significant changes have now been made to make it easier to do business with cloud service providers.
New security policies have now been established as well. For example, the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) is a government-wide program that provides a standardized approach to security assessment, authorization and continuous monitoring for cloud products and services. Requirements for cloud computing security controls, rigorous security certification and continuous monitoring standards for the cloud have been established by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) as well under the auspices of the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA).
As a cumulative result of these policy changes, more federal budget dollars can now be diverted away from capital infrastructure purchases and toward predictable, recurring service charges.
2: Costly Disaster Recovery Requirements
Continuity of communications is vital to agencies tasked to protect the homeland and serve the public good. Outages can threaten the performance of both routine tasks and the most sensitive of missions.
Agencies can build redundancy into a locally-deployed architecture, of course. But that approach can be quite costly. Centralized UC solutions delivered as a service can address disaster recovery concerns in a more cost-conscious manner, with costly redundancy and fail-over capabilities becoming the responsibility of the service provider. Vital communications tools accessible via the cloud remain available to users whether they are in the office, at a disaster recovery facility or working from home or another remote location. If a military base or embassy is compromised or a building is inaccessible due to fire or flood, the agency’s mission can continue uninterrupted.
3: Infrastructure Deployment Timelines
Solutions deployed across a government enterprise on a per-location basis can take months or even years to implement. And so can upgrades or feature enhancements. With a centralized solution delivered as a service, the deployment time is reduced to days or weeks. Agencies with aging infrastructure can quickly transform their operations and improve performance with little, if any, capital expenditure. They can add desktop video, mobility applications and other new features and make them immediately available agency-wide.
4: The Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) Challenge
The BYOD trend continues to snowball. In fact, studies by the Aberdeen Group show that more than eight out of 10 organizations permit the use of employee-owned mobile devices for business purposes, and more are joining them every day. Government workers expect the same flexibility. They want the powerful capabilities they find on their personal smartphone or tablet to be available at work – without the inconvenience of carrying one device for government business and another for personal use.
Premises-based UC solutions optimized for desktop delivery are often tied to specific applications and operating systems, making interoperability with BYOD difficult. In addition, VPN clients or other software may be required. While that’s fine for laptops, it can be a problem for tablets or phones. Centralized UC solutions delivered over the cloud, though, can be accessed through a browser interface from any device, regardless of the operating system involved. This makes cloud-based hosted or managed services an ideal choice for leveraging employee-owned devices.
5: Infrastructure Migration Risks
It can be a challenge to maintain continuous availability while migrating from a legacy communications system to a newer, premises-based UC solution. The system may be unavailable to end users for a period of time as the new infrastructure is brought online and tweaked for optimal performance. Cloud-based UC services, though, eliminate the risk. In fact, a centralized UC solution can be layered on top of an existing infrastructure to provide new functionalities immediately – working in concert with the legacy premises-based solution during a transition period. Agencies gain a clear migration path to new capabilities while reducing their deployment risks.
6: Shifting headcount
Federal agencies sometimes grow in response to legislative and executive branch imperatives and sometimes they shed jobs and shrink. Investing in a fixed infrastructure can mean capabilities are overbuilt during periods of belt-tightening or shifting priorities – and underbuilt if demand grows. Cloud-based solutions resolve the dilemma by providing the flexibility to respond to shifting needs. Agencies simply add or drop seat licenses to accommodate current staffing levels.
7: Management Complexity
One of the more significant challenges in managing any premises-based application is administration – from setting up new users to applying patches and installing new features. Depending on the architecture and breadth of the on-premises solution, these tasks may need to be repeated a number of times, requiring both time and administrative headcount. With a centralized UC solution, administrative tasks are centralized as well. New features, upgrades and patches are installed once and then distributed agency-wide.
Summing it Up: Expect Momentum to Build
For these reasons and more, the adoption of cloud-based hosted and managed services is likely to grow among government agencies and departments of all sizes. This transition removes costly barriers to entry for new technology and enables organizations to deploy new productivity-enhancing services on demand for a predictable monthly rate per user. They are able to operate more productively, streamline decision-making, reengineer processes and deliver seamless support both to office staffers and to those working remotely or on the go. They can readily respond to federal policy initiatives, such telecommuting and new outbound emergency notification programs. And they can save money while doing so. My own company estimates that a move to the cloud can save the average federal organization 25 percent of its communications budget over a three-year period.
Though we are not yet at the tipping point, the trend is clear and the path is now open. Expect more agencies to jump on the bandwagon as their legacy infrastructure ages and an update, replacement or new capability is required.
Edited by Brooke Neuman