Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

How Cloud Computing Can Benefit Disaster Response

For emergency management, cloud computing’s biggest advantage can be summed up in three words: virtual mission continuity.

As technology continues to redefine emergency management practices, the process of incorporating new concepts into daily practice and planning can be confusing. This is especially true if the concept sounds mysterious and cryptic — cloud computing often sounds complex
and bewildering.

The truth isn’t nearly that exciting. Cloud computing is more like regressing to the early days of network design. The “cloud” in cloud computing was the symbol network engineers used to illustrate unknown domains and large networks of servers located elsewhere. Using the power of other computers somewhere on the Internet — that’s what cloud computing is all about.

“Cloud computing is just hosted computer services,” said Pascal Schuback, a program coordinator for the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management. “It is simply using the power of other computers on the Internet.”

Emergency managers use a cloud every day without thinking twice to: check email, collaborate with applications like SharePoint, access social and professional networks, watch videos on YouTube, or use almost anything from Google.

Cloud computing is not new. What is new is how it’s being applied. What it can do for emergency management is make the job a lot easier.

Nick Crossley, manager of emergency management and mission continuity for the University of California, Davis, uses Microsoft SharePoint as a collaborative planning tool for events on campus. “I can set up discussion boards, share documents or resource lists,” he said. “I can control access to it, and all the players in any event or incident can access it anytime, from anywhere, on or off campus.”

Commercial incident management software is also in the cloud. “We used WebEOC as a cloud for communication and emergency response between all the local, regional and state emergency management,” said Daryl Spiewak, former emergency, safety and compliance manager for the Brazos River Authority in Waco, Texas.

The Advantages

Like everything else, there are pros and cons to delivering services via cloud computing.

One big advantage is the cost. The individual user needs only a terminal/monitor/modem with some limited local storage and access to the Internet. Commercial software packages vanish in favor of subscriptions to the programs or services needed. The agency doesn’t need a room full of servers, and IT departments shrink because the data center doesn’t exist.

The end-user experience is certainly less complicated. Compatibility problems decrease, because software updates are always current. Dependability increases because services are maintained and available remotely 24/7, no more waiting for desktop support. Profiles remain consistent across all devices, and “intelligent assistants” (think Siri) can customize needed information.

There is a growing niche market for specific industries. A service from Clio lets lawyers manage their practice and communication with clients from the cloud. Oxford University in England maintains a service to give academic researchers a space for long-term retention of their research data. Autodesk has cloud-based tools for designers. The Electronic Medical Records initiative replaces doctors’ charts with terminals that allow them to keep track of medical treatments regardless of a patient’s physical location.

Now the Downside

As idyllic as it all sounds, there are concerns about migrating to cloud computing, like bandwidth. Think of bandwidth as the Interstate Highway System. The roadway is the network; the wider the roadway, the more cars (or data) can travel along it; more roadways (networks) mean more options for cars (and data) to get from one place to another. We have the interstate; we don’t have the city streets. The downside is that public infrastructure — physical or virtual — isn’t a high priority in the U.S. these days.

Another concern is maintaining connections to a cloud. If the link is severed because of a power outage, software crash, or an earthquake or hurricane taking out the local infrastructure, and the Internet can’t be accessed, neither can the data or applications stored there. Case in point being the Microsoft Azure cloud service failure on Feb. 29 that left customers worldwide without access for several hours to several days. This problem is easier to solve: The answer is collaborating clouds. Just like there are failover procedures in data centers, there will be failover clouds.

Valerie Lucus-McEwen Valerie Lucus-McEwen  |  Contributing Writer

Valerie Lucus-McEwen is a certified emergency manager, certified business continuity professional and an adjunct professor for California State University, Long Beach. She can be reached by email.

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