Perhaps one of the most underestimated and misunderstood phenomenons of the digital age, cloud computing -- the movement of data, software and services away from the desktop to remote servers or data centers -- is transforming the way we communicate, research and conduct everyday business and life.
The Internet, beginning in the early 1990s, made it a lot easier to communicate, but it's what we're seeing today, from Facebook and Twitter, to live-streaming video and the proliferation of mobile devices that is revolutionizing communications. And it's happening at light speed.
Consider the example of the iPhone, arguably the most disruptive mobile technology since the invention of the cell phone itself. Have you ever updated your Facebook status or sent a Tweet while waiting for a flight or walking to a meeting? Chances are that you're sending information to a group of remote servers known as a cloud. Do you use Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail or another Web-based e-mail service? Again, you're both storing information on and sending data to a cloud.
A recent survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 69 percent of U.S. Internet users have a Web mail account, store data online or use Web-based software. Research firm Gartner estimates that 25 percent of new business software will be delivered as software as a service (SaaS) by 2011.
While the federal government has been slow to embrace the full potential of the Internet, it now has an extraordinary opportunity to help shape the next chapter of the digital age by enacting policies that further the development -- and understanding -- of cloud computing.
First, by making it the centerpiece of a 21st Century national broadband agenda. Fortunately, the Obama administration has signaled its intention to harness the power of information technology to help regenerate the economy and make it easier for citizens to interact with and participate in government programs.
"To help build a new foundation for the 21st century, we need to reform our government so that it is more efficient, more transparent, and more creative," President Obama said earlier this year.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that the president signed into law in February allocates $7.2 billion for broadband internet access nationwide, including "grants for rural broadband access, expanding computer center capacity, and sustainable broadband adoption initiatives." By making cloud computing the centerpiece of a national broadband agenda, the government would not only be uncovering new ways to increase transparency, but would also be helping individual communities develop and access new and innovative services.
Second, investing in cyber security, data protection and greater privacy measures. Without public trust, the jewels of the Internet -- Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Google, etc. -- simply wouldn't exist. Imagine, for example, signing onto Gmail or Yahoo and finding that your data had been compromised. Or logging into your Facebook account and realizing that someone had posted to your personal news feed.
Both Congress and the administration can set an example for governments across the globe by enacting policies that strengthen our nation's ability to both thwart and address cyber attacks.
"Cloud computing gives government agencies a chance to get cyber security right, instead of having to continuously patch legacy software applications," Daniel Burton, Senior Vice President for Global Public Policy at Salesforce.com, recently told me. Among Salesforce.com's federal customers are the U.S. Census Bureau, NASA, the U.S. Treasury, U.S. Army, U.S. State Department and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Third, recognizing the power of cloud computing to create jobs, promote innovation and help organizations of all sizes become more competitive. We've seen information technology's impact before: in the early 1980s, mid 1990s and shortly after the turn of the century following the bursting of the dot-com bubble. Cloud computing will not only help fuel economic growth, but will help small businesses achieve the savings necessary to navigate through this period of economic softness by bringing the caliber of technology that was once unique to Wall Street to those trying to survive on Main Street.
Stated simply, the Obama administration -- working alongside members of Congress and leaders in the private sector -- has an unprecedented opportunity to advance the nation's technological, security and economic interests through a cloud-based strategy. And in light of the economic challenges that we'll likely continue to face for the foreseeable future, the time to make this a reality is now.
Sean Donahue is Senior Vice President of The Herald Group, a Washington, D.C.-based public affairs and strategic communications consulting firm.