Cloud Computing: Build the Next-Generation Cloud Solutions

The efforts to build sophisticated cloud solutions to serve specialized needs are often complicated by inflexible workflows.

Niten Malik

These days, no organization can afford to spend millions of dollars or take decades to build and maintain complex systems, especially cash-strapped government agencies. Government business processes are complex and often unique. They must typically meet multiple competing objectives such as balancing national security, privacy or budget constraints, changes in legislation and levels of customer service.

The systems developed to meet these requirements are often difficult to maintain and costly to change. Business process improvements put in place to keep pace with technology innovations are also costly. This is especially true when the underlying development platform is outdated or requires extensive customization. The predominant strategy for developing complex government systems has been custom code or modifying traditional business process management (BPM) tools, including enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.

However, aligning government business processes to rigidly defined out-of-the-box workflows has proven expensive and time-consuming. Often, it’s a profound challenge to adapt process flows developed for commercial business functions to the unique functions of government agencies. This lack of flexibility makes it difficult to cost-effectively change processes not aligned to government’s unique business requirements. This leads to frustration and impedes innovation. Opportunities to reengineer or optimize processes are nonexistent, or limited at best.

Government business rules developed to meet specific legislative or citizen needs pose unique challenges. They require a reliable and efficient data-sharing and collaboration infrastructure that may extend to private organizations and federal, state and local government departments. In such a diverse environment, the cost benefits of traditional workflow management tools are quickly diluted, especially when you have to customize proprietary processes.

To compensate for the lack of process flexibility and more closely align system capabilities to government requirements, agencies often rely on custom code. However, this is costly to develop and maintain. A stable of programmers working on complex systems creates millions of lines of code. This is expensive and time-consuming to update when changes are required. Enforcing methodology, inadequate documentation, and dependence on programmers who alone understand what they’ve coded raises the level of difficulty. Software release schedules, regression testing and change-management processes also slow the pace of innovation. At the end, responsive technology architecture is elusive at best.

Get off the Shelf

The greatest challenge facing most government programs is reducing the cost of complex systems while making them more responsive to business changes. An effective solution-development strategy should include the use of custom code in conjunction with out-of-the box workflows. This limits custom development to the system’s most unique functions.

Next-generation development platforms should allow the unique business requirements to be coded in a widely used programming language. These platforms should offer a rich and comprehensive set of out-of-box and configurable capabilities. Custom coding less of the required functionality from scratch reduces development cost by as much as 50 percent to 70 percent when compared to traditional custom development.

To reliably collect and maintain data, government systems must be intuitive and easy to use for all stakeholders. They should require fewer steps to input and retrieve information, view up-to-the-minute status, and collaborate with citizens and program officials.

Relevant information should be current and accessible on a range of devices from smartphones to iPads. Systems should be designed to help users move reliably and efficiently through the process. One example is employing automated alerts to support decisions or actions and providing advanced data visualization and analytics.

Data must also be rendered to different user groups in a manner consistent with how they need to consume information. For example, a student might want to access loan-application status on a smartphone, while a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer might need to view the most-current non-immigrant status inside the CBP port of entry software.

A rules engine must allow for quick and cost-effective changes to business rules, thereby enabling an abbreviated change governance process and agile and responsive business processes. Program data will grow, and its continued core mission will depend on timely data sharing and analysis with other agencies. The technology should enable easily configured systems and processes that promote a culture of innovation and information sharing across the organization. Therefore, most government systems require a robust and user-friendly data exchange and analysis platform.

The reliability and responsiveness of any business process depends on real-time or close-to-real-time collaboration between the government and citizens. At its core, these systems are a communication platform to enable collaborative business operations that drive organizational change and efficient operations.

Improve Reliability and Resiliency

The next generation of government solutions will also likely operate in the cloud to optimize cost and improve mission reliability. Differing business needs mean a single cloud strategy won’t be applicable to all programs. Some applications won’t be deployable on a public or government cloud, while others might leverage only certain cloud capabilities.

The development platform must be versatile enough to provide multiple cloud-enabled development and service-delivery models that take into account each program’s unique security and operating requirements. They should also facilitate sharing IT assets and creating multi-tenant solutions. They must also provide the flexibility to deploy solutions across multiple types of hosting and cloud infrastructures (private cloud, government community cloud and so on) as requirements and technology evolve.

Cost Advantage

The solution-development business case must hinge on cost savings and mission improvement. Dynamics CRM and SharePoint let you build multiple business applications on the same framework. You can deploy applications more rapidly, as they enable iterative and incremental development. Over time, custom applications aren’t extensible or scalable. As an application-development platform, Dynamics CRM provides a reliable framework for extending and scaling applications.

You can’t completely avoid the need for custom code for certain unique business requirements. Traditional workflow management tools such as ERP systems often claim to be customizable to specific business requirements. Such customization typically requires developers highly skilled in proprietary or uncommon languages. Over the past decade, implementing complex government functions by customizing traditional workflows has proven expensive and time-consuming.

The configurable functions of Dynamics CRM are designed to be extended with agency-specific business logic, such as unique validation rules or workflows. You can custom code these in the Microsoft .NET Framework. You can also get them from a library of preconfigured .NET Framework controls, in which case a function call to the component will further reduce the need to write code from scratch.

The Dynamics CRM and SharePoint development platforms offer architecture components such as security, data access, workflow and presentation logic out of the box. This helps avoid the cost of building them from the ground up.

The pace at which the development framework itself is updated will determine which new capabilities the applications can provide. Microsoft consistently makes significant investments in research and development to maintain the position of Dynamics CRM and SharePoint as industry-leading solution-development frameworks.

Continuous Innovation

Few things are more certain to slow the pace of innovation than having to wait for the next software release cycle (typically three to six months). Innovation must be iterative and ongoing in a user-centric organization. Interface changes or business-logic updates must be accomplished in hours or days, not weeks or months.

Dynamics CRM fosters a culture of innovation and agility. It empowers the workforce to optimize processes and collaborate as a team. This can have a positive impact on workforce morale, in addition to improving the level of customer service and mission reliability.

Microsoft provides the same framework and Web service SDK used internally by its developers. This means Dynamics CRM is infinitely modifiable and extensible at virtually any layer. The customer isn’t constrained to the Microsoft vision of CRM.

The Microsoft business intelligence (BI) strategy relies on the basic premise that powerful analytical capabilities must work with ubiquitous and familiar collaboration tools to share internal and external business intelligence. Thus, it facilitates broader use of data analytics across the programs for decision making.

Self-service analytics and the ability to analyze millions of rows of data with familiar tools such as Excel are game changing. SharePoint and Dynamics CRM are built on Microsoft SQL Server. Power View within SQL Server 2012 helps users create and share real-time analytic dashboards with drill-down capabilities to visualize data patterns and trends.

Dealing with Big Data

Research firm IDC estimates the amount of available data more than doubles every two years. You’ll have to harness big data in order to make programs more resilient. This enables higher-quality decision making based on deeper insight into that data and proactive response to risks and opportunities. To maximize the value of that data, organizations need a single consistent data platform to embrace the scale and diversity of information.

Assimilating data from external sources and correlating it with internal databases gives you actionable BI. Government agencies and programs need systematic visibility into external factors that impact their mission. Threats to a program’s mission aren’t static. Predictive analysis systematically looks for trends and anomalies within internal and external data. It uses algorithms to connect the dots between seemingly isolated events to detect emerging issues. Prioritizing and responding to early risk indicators makes the program’s mission more resilient.

Finding contextual information or drawing event or social data relevance into the agency’s mission relies on analyzing large volumes of structured, semi-structured and unstructured data. You must be able to cull data from multiple formats and numerous sources, including documents, Web sites, social networks, mobile channels, pictures, videos, internal file networks, sensors, datacenters, other agencies and relational databases. Data volume can easily reach the petabyte (one quadrillion bytes) level.

It’s costly to create and maintain an on-premises infrastructure for analyzing big data. Big data as a service on Windows Azure is one cost-effective way to implement a Hadoop platform. Hadoop is an open source platform for analyzing big data workloads in a distributed environment. It’s available on both Windows Server and as a service on Windows Azure. Other Windows Azure platform tools—such as Bing maps, SQL Server and SharePoint—are also powerful data-aggregation and data-analysis tools.

SQL Server offers powerful capabilities for transferring data between SQL Server and Hadoop via the SQL Server Connector for Apache Hadoop. This facilitates moving data from Hadoop into a relational database for consumption by line-of-business applications built on Dynamics CRM and SharePoint. Business users can use analytical tools with which they’re most familiar. They don’t need specialized skills to analyze large data sets on Hadoop. Accessibility by business users is critically important in decision making.

A solution that enables real-time collaboration between officials and an organization’s customers will result in a responsive program, leading to a rich and impactful ongoing relationship with customers. Reliable and robust information exchange with other departments and agencies, combined with actionable analytics that draw insight from contextual data, will increase mission reliability.

Next month, read about how a stable development platform based on Dynamics CRM and SharePoint provides flexibility and scalability in specific areas such as mobility, security and interoperability.

Niten Malik

Niten Malik focuses on creating Software as a Service solutions. Over the years, he has built expertise in developing business case and operating models for cloud-based, multi-tenant solutions. Most recently, he led development of cloud computing strategy and capabilities for the Accenture Public Service operating group. Malik holds an MBA from the Kellogg School of Business, Northwestern University.