As I have mentioned before in Part 1  and Part 2  of this three part series, cloud computing is a particularly important topic for development professionals. In this blog, I will look at sectors where cloud based services are particularly relevant to development professionals and others.
Although “cloud computing” is a hot subject in development, many are still “cloudy” about exactly what it means. Very simply it refers to Internet-based use of programs that are are not installed in your computer. Typically usage of such programs are either free or use a subscription model, thus eliminating or reducing the need for capital investment in technology infrastructure. However much like Web 2.0, the precise definition of cloud computing is still under debate, and as a result it is an over-used term that refers to something that everybody agrees is needed, but no one is quite sure what it is.
Cloud computing has potential development applications not just in the public sector realm but also areas such as health, finance, agriculture and education. Here's a look at some of the development sectors that are being influenced by cloud computing.
Public Sector: Public sector practitioners may need to understand if cloud computing is a suitable option for governments seeking to increase efficiency and cut costs. They may need to decide whether to advise governments to continue with infrastructure ownership or move towards cloud computing. They will need to have views on security, ease of access, scalability, fault tolerance and other issues in relation to cloud computing. Developed countries have moved to, or are moving to the cloud. For instance, UK developed a strategic cloud computing plan  in 2010 as part of an ICT strategy  with practical objectives - for instance the creation of a “G-cloud” that, by 2015, will allow 80%  of government PCs to access basic services such as word processing via a cloud instead of local applications. In the US, CIO Vivek Kundra is an advocate  of the cloud. Kundra believes that cloud computing can save millions of dollars for the federal government by moving away from infrastructure ownership, making efficiency and cost savings two big drivers for the push in cloud computing. President Obama, in his FY 2010 budget request, had a section of the budget document mention cloud computing, Cross Cutting Programs , that talks about the benefits of cloud computing and the pilots that will be carried out in selected federal agencies, saying “pilot projects will be implemented to offer an opportunity to utilize more fully and broadly departmental and agency architectures to identify enterprise-wide common services and solutions, with a new emphasis on cloud-computing”.
Finance: Let’s look at an application of the cloud in finance. This example is not related to development, however the problem it addresses - the need for huge processing power without the resources to deliver it in-house - is a common problem in developing countries. Bankinter in Spain needed unlimited and flexible computational power to run their risk-simulation process. However they did not have the resources to be able to do so. In order to run their risk simulations, they use complex algorithms that simulate diverse scenarios, and thus measure the financial health of their clients. This requires huge computational power (running over 400,000 simulations to get realistic results). This used to run once a day and required about 23 system hours to process. Now it runs in approximately twenty minutes using the “flexibility and power” of Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) to execute these simulations.
Education: Cloud enabled delivery of courses over the web, through providing high quality educational materials to low-served areas can potentially improve educational outcomes.Thus the cloud can empower anybody with an Internet connection to access a quality education. Organizations that are already doing so include Academic Earth , Youtube education , Google Video for education , Khan Academy , and MIT Open Courseware .
Health: As this article  points out, “Most health care systems are built on workflows that consist of paper medical records, duplicated test results, non-digitized images, handwritten notes, fragmented IT systems, and silioed information. Information sharing across providers is inefficient and data portability is rare.....Physicians still rely on pagers as a primary communications tool, and coordinating care schedules and other administrative processes are cumbersome”. Cloud computing can address many of these issues. For example, one of the benefits of using the cloud for health includes cloud storage of medical data. Cloud-based medical records and medical image archiving services could free up hospital resources. Another potential application is the health information exchange (HIE). HIEs are cloud-based information clearinghouses where information can be shared between hospitals, health systems, physicians, and clinics. Yet another application relates to cloud-based physician collaboration solutions such as remote video conference physician visits. Finally industry observers predict synergistic intersections of mHealth (mobile health) and Hcloud (health and cloud). The challenge of using the cloud in Health is that the cloud needs to be secure and robust. Recent cloud outages at organizations such as Amazon and privacy concerns however are some challenges that need to be addressed first, particularly in an area like Health.
Agriculture: Samuel Greengard, in the Communications of the ACM talks  about the southern Sahara region of Sahel where farmers now use a cloud-based trading system that disseminates information about planting schedules, crop status, harvesting times, and market prices through mobile phones, and how in India, the Apparel Export Promotion Council, has developed a cloud platform that provides computing services and enterprise software to more than 11,000 of its members, most of whom lack the capital and resources to build their own IT infrastructure.
Photo Credit: Flickr user leolintang