Microsoft’s Cloud: Safe Enough for Government?

The last thing Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to worry about is whether the technology his civil servants use improves their efficiency or gets in their way. This is probably why he’s migrating them to a cloud-based solution from Microsoft. Ironically, at the same time the media covered this deal, the software giant’s Windows Azure cloud started acting up. Let’s take a quick look at the Chicago deal first, as reported by Engadget. By migrating the city’s 30,000 civil servants to a cloud for e-mail and all desktop applications, the four-year deal is expected to save taxpayers a total of $1.6 million. Before the deal, Chicago’s government employees used three separate e-mail systems internally; between the financial savings and the technological headaches this will solve, it sounds like a stellar move. Brett Goldstein, Chicago’s Chief Information Officer and the Commissioner of the Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) had nothing but good things to say about the deal. “The cloud strategy gives City employees the ability to do their jobs more effectively while saving taxpayer dollars, decreasing duplication among departments and streamlining our operations across the board.” He dubbed it “a major step towards our goal of modernizing our information technology. Ultimately, updating the City’s digital infrastructure…sets the foundation for innovation that will continue to move us forward.” Goldstein’s department projects that all of the city government’s e-mail and desktop users will have migrated to the cloud by the end of this year. That sounds like a great win for both Microsoft and the city of Chicago…which is why the news from ZDNet is so disheartening. Jack Clark reported that this morning, “multiple Azure users began reporting problems with [Microsoft's] Ajax Content Delivery Network.” This network serves third-party JavaScript libraries to sites and apps built on top of Windows Azure, the software giant’s global cloud computing network. Additionally, the ajax.aspnetcdn.com  site was unavailable. It still, as of this writing, returns a Microsoft page stating “We are sorry, the page you requested cannot be found.” The good news, judging from this set of tweets, is that the outage itself did not seem to last very long. Still, according to Cedexis, a cloud monitoring company, the hiccup was quite real. So at least some users of Windows Azure experienced issues with their applications, and Microsoft has yet to weigh in on what happened. What does that say about a deal involving a city government – and migrating 30,000 users and their e-mail and all of their desktop apps into the cloud? Without knowing the full terms of the deal, it’s hard to say, but it may not be as worrisome as it seems at first glance. As noted, the outage itself didn’t seem to last long – and Microsoft may have some redundancy built into its own systems. On one of its pages discussing the Microsoft Ajax Content Delivery Network, the company notes that, while it now uses the aspnetcdn.com domain name, ajax.microsoft.com would continue to function. Besides, that outage may ultimately mean nothing in terms of the Chicago deal; the software giant may have built an entirely separate cloud for the city. It’s not totally unheard of – and by the way, Chicago itself is far from clueless when it comes to cloud computing. They already use a cloud solution to handle the Chicago Department of Aviation’s data related to airline billing and building plan information. So both parties presumably know what they’re doing. Still, if I were the Chicago mayor, I’d want to ask Microsoft about that little outage. It wouldn’t be the first time a government has asked for some transparency from the company. And if I were Chicago’s CIO, I’d be planning that migration very carefully and triple-checking everything. The last thing they need in the windy city is a storm in their new cloud.