Cloud Computing Explained

by Mark Fetherolf, Chief Technology Officer, InterAct

Cloud computing brings a sensational array of opportunities to the public safety community, not only to eliminate the cost of massively redundant infrastructure, but also to open communication channels that have long been blocked by incompatible information systems. Interagency dispatch, coordinated response, data sharing, workload balancing, disaster recovery, unified analytics, and connecting in new ways with the public are among the most exciting.

Cloud computing makes it possible for public safety practitioners to:

Unfortunately, cloud jargon has become a source of  confusion. Depending on who is using them, the terms have a variety of meanings. And sometimes the confusion is intentional:

Verb /kloud-ˈwäSHiNG/
Cloud-washing

  1. The purposeful and sometimes deceptive attempt by a vendor to rebrand an old product or service by associating the buzzword "cloud" with it.

If you have ever done a Google search or ordered from Amazon, you made use of cloud computing. But what is cloud computing really?

Cloud computing technologies were developed originally to make it possible for Internet applications to support large numbers of users efficiently and economically. At first they were highly complex, expensive, and affordable only to the largest service providers.  In recent years, cloud computing tools have evolved. Today, they are more affordable, less complex, and applicable to a wider variety of applications.

The term “cloud” comes from the symbol used in network diagrams, like the one below, that shows workstations connected to a server. But, despite the eye-catching cloud, it may or may not depict cloud computing.

The graphic that follows shows how eight hundred million computer systems on the Internet are interconnected. It is easy to see why the Internet is often referred to as the cloud.

It is nearly impossible not to be connected to the Internet. If you use email, you are taking advantage of the Internet cloud. But cloud computing is more than an Internet connection.

Cloud terminology is also used to describe business arrangements. When a service provider operates an application on remote (hosted) servers, under terms known as SaaS (Software as a Service), it is often said that the application runs in the cloud. But connecting to an application in a remote location — whether you outsource hosting or do it yourself, connect through the Internet or a private network, pay by subscription or license — is not cloud computing.

Five Essential Characteristics

Motivated by the potential for huge economies of scale, the U.S. Federal Government has adopted a “cloud first” policy  that requires agencies default to cloud-based solutions whenever a secure, reliable, cloud option exists. But this policy is very specific about what is meant by “cloud”. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) defines cloud computing through “five essential characteristics[1].”  

The first three are what make cloud computing easier than operating your own computing facility.

On-demand self-service. Resources (e.g. CPU, storage, networks, and databases) are allocated to consumers as needed. You will be up and running as soon as you make arrangements with the service provider. There is nothing to install[2].

Rapid elasticity. Capabilities are provisioned and released as needed. Like an electric utility or telephone carrier, the service provider worries about capacity and workload. You just use the service (and pay the bill).

Broad network access. Capabilities are accessed “through standard mechanisms that promote use by heterogeneous thin or thick client platforms.” In other words, all you need is a workstation, laptop, smartphone, or tablet.  

The last two qualities enable a service provider to bring the full value of cloud computing to your organization.

Resource pooling. The provider’s computing resources are pooled to serve multiple consumers using a multi-tenant model. Hosting a dedicated server and database for each customer is not cloud computing. The economies of scale that make the cloud so attractive are only possible with multi-tenant applications.

Measured service. Cloud computing is automatically controlled and optimized based on metering the use of resources (e.g. storage, processing, and bandwidth). The more consumers sharing multi-tenant resources, the greater the savings that can be achieved through optimizations such as automated load balancing and workload distribution.

In very simple terms, the benefits of cloud computing accrue from many agencies sharing multi-tenant applications instead of having separate individual systems. The five preceding requirements are essential.

Without on-demand self-service, implementation time is far longer and more costly. Each agency’s servers (or virtual machines) must be separately sized and provisioned by highly skilled personnel. Hardware needs to be configured, operating systems and databases need to be installed, and application instances need to be set up. In real cloud computing, all the resources are in place and ready to go. All that is required is authorization and connection.

Without elasticity, you are either paying for too much capacity or suffering from too little. In an elastic environment, you get the resources you need when you need them, but when you don’t, they are available for others. Everyone saves money.

Without broad access, you will not have the operational benefit of access to your critical applications anytime and anywhere.

Without resource pooling, the potential savings aren’t possible. Simply moving an application from an on-premise server to one that is hosted by a service provider doesn’t save anything. The same hardware and software has to be administered, maintained, and supported.  If the service provider doesn’t pool resources, the fundamental benefit of sharing resources doesn’t apply.

Without measured service, the economies of scale can’t be achieved. Optimization is achieved by managing capacity and continuous improvement of operational efficiencies. Measurement is essential.

Service Models

There are three levels of cloud computing services, called IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS:

IaaS - Infrastructure as a Service. This is raw computing and storage service, usually on a virtual machine. You are responsible for installing and maintaining all software, including the operating system (usually Windows or Linux), databases etc. You essentially outsource the physical data center, but still provide the IT professionals to support your systems.

PaaS - Platform as a Service. In the PaaS model, cloud providers deliver a computing platform, typically including operating system, programming language execution environment, database, and web server. Some PaaS systems scale automatically to match demand so you do not have to allocate resources manually. You are still responsible for installing, supporting, and upgrading applications.

SaaS - Software as a Service. SaaS applications relieve you of all responsibility for the infrastructure and platform. You use and administer only the application.

IaaS and PaaS enable IT departments to outsource some aspects of maintaining hardware and software. Cloud economics come into play when many data centers consolidate so that resources can be be made available on demand and shared, eliminating excess capacity and redundant support efforts.

For public safety practitioners, the major benefits come with SaaS, because sharing applications brings the operational benefits over and above cost savings.  SaaS applications make it a lot easier for people and organizations to interconnect.  These applications are called multi-tenant because a single instance of an application supports many users. Each user has their own individual configuration and control as though they were using a dedicated system. Yet a single network connection opens the door to online collaboration and secure information exchange with hundreds of other agencies, service providers, and citizens. And it is accessible anywhere, anytime, on any device.

Kinds of Clouds - Deployment Models

Also according to NIST, all of the three service models may be delivered in any of four deployment models.

Public cloud. The cloud infrastructure is provisioned for open use by the general public. It may be owned, managed, and operated by a business, academic, or government organization, or some combination of them. It exists on the premises of the cloud provider.

Private cloud. The cloud infrastructure is provisioned for exclusive use by a single organization comprising multiple consumers (e.g., business units). It may be owned, managed, and operated by the organization, a third party, or some combination of them, and it may exist on or off premises.

Community cloud. The cloud infrastructure is provisioned for exclusive use by a specific community of consumers from organizations that have shared concerns (e.g., mission, security requirements, policy, and compliance considerations). It may be owned, managed, and operated by one or more of the organizations in the community, a third party, or some combination of them, and it may exist on or off premises.

Hybrid cloud. The cloud infrastructure is a composition of two or more distinct cloud infrastructures (private, community, or public) that remain unique entities, but are bound together by standardized or proprietary technology that enables data and application portability (e.g., cloud bursting for load balancing between clouds).

The community cloud model fits the interests of public safety exceptionally well. Access is limited to public safety agencies. Policy, compliance, and security concerns are met. Resource sharing and the associated savings are maximized.

While larger agencies, regional consortia, and state governments may choose private cloud options, few such organizations are large enough to realize the potential economies of scale of a larger community or to afford the investment necessary to create a true elastic cloud environment. Furthermore, very few multi-tenant applications are available for private cloud deployment. Therefore what are intended to be private cloud deployments come up short of the goal. The effort to support a separate instance of each application for each agency is much greater and the operational benefits are far fewer.

SaaS vendors that have achieved widespread adoption in the industry are best able to able to offer the advantages of community cloud based solutions.

InterAct believes the benefits of cloud computing are so great that its adoption has become a key success factor in achieving the mission we share with our customers:

The safety and well-being of people
and their communities.


[1] "The NIST Definition of Cloud Computing". National Institute of Standards and Technology. July 2011.

[2] Smart client applications require installation — servers are in the cloud. Some applications use installed “appliances” to provide physical connections with on-premise resources such as phone and radio systems, or for disconnected operation.