For years, the 3 million attendees of the 10-day Taste of Chicago festival lugged around a 28-page brochure to find the food and music offered at different times and locations around the city. In May 2009, the city posted the schedule online and built an application that brought the information right to festival-goers' smartphones.

Through the use of "cloud" technology from Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft, the application was developed that saved thousands of dollars of printing costs, and more importantly, delivered the information in an interactive format so users could navigate the event. Unlike many IT projects that take months to develop, the project only took two weeks. "This was providing folks with information right at their fingertips," says David Kennedy, Chicago's deputy director of special events.

While adoption of efficiency-enhancing, Internet-based computer networks is nothing new in the corporate world, the public sector is only now finding new uses for on-demand networks. According to a May 2010 report from the federal CIO Council, "State of Public Sector Cloud Computing," a report advocating increased use of shared software and hardware, "While the public sector is just at the beginning of the journey to cloud computing, we are already seeing innovative examples at all levels of government."

Governments take to clouds

The idea of cloud computing derives from the interconnection of computer data centers via the Internet, so that services are provided somewhere "in the clouds" rather than being located on computers in the operation's own technology center. It is somewhat akin to the difference between owning and maintaining one's own well for drinking water and drawing from a shared public utility that can be turned on or off quickly as needed, paying only for the amount used.

Local governments, from the largest cities to small towns, are moving to "cloud" computing to meet their technology requirements. Examples abound:

  • Canton, Ga., north of Atlanta, with a population of 21,000 and one of the fastest growing cities in the nation, moved to a Google cloud email system that not only provides sufficient email capacity, but also added a number of features so staff can collaborate more easily on projects. The city estimates that the new system saves $10,000 per year, says Camille Wehs, the city's director of information technology. She says the decision to move to the cloud was easy because of its cost savings, reliability and security.

  • Located just 17 miles south of Austin, Buda, Texas, is home to a year-round calendar of festivals. Although Buda's population is just over 7,000, the city's ambitious festival schedule means its services (including police, fire, library and utilities) must match those offered in much larger municipalities. As a result, Buda staff turned to a Microsoft cloud system for its email and collaboration services.

  • New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced an executive order in October 2010 that aims to consolidate its software licenses with Microsoft and start moving toward cloud computing, saying that it would save the city more than $50 million.

  • Miami, Fla., is using a cloud system to record, track and report nonemergency incidents tied into its 311 call-in system. The city says that it not only provides cost savings and sophisticated mapping capabilities, but it also creates a disaster recovery back-up.

  • In an effort to deliver technology services as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible, Minnesota's Office of Enterprise Technology (OET) is working with Microsoft to become the first U.S. state to move to a large collaboration and communication suite in a private cloud environment.

  • To address recent budget and human resource challenges, Orlando is using a Google email system for all 3,000 city workers. The city says it is saving $262,500 per year, centralizing document storage and collaboration, increasing mail storage from 100 MB to 25 GB per user, and enhancing support for mobile devices.