Head (and data) in the cloud

Most police executives should by now be familiar with the concept of “the cloud.” That is, using the Internet to store and access information, including e-mail, files, images and video, and so on. The question for them, however, is: Should police...

Platform as a Service (PaaS) stores information in a structured manner, and creates the ability for IT managers to upload and use applications with which to access that information. The PaaS provider must support the application’s programming language for it to run properly (which is why Internet Explorer for Windows will not work on the Mac platform). Law enforcement example: the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) along with the more than 90 other information transactions available via the NLETS infrastructure.

Software as a Service (SaaS): Perhaps the best known of all cloud services because of its broad consumer applicability, SaaS is commonly known to include Web-based e-mail (Gmail, Hotmail), online document creation and sharing services (Google Docs, Zoho), some blogging services (WordPress.com, Blogger), and so forth. Most importantly, SaaS means that IT managers do not physically install or maintain software on any part of their systems, either on the end-user (client) side or the server side. At most, the manager maintains end users’ application configurations. SaaS offers the least control over how end users work in the cloud.

Currently, most of the software used to access NCIC and other NLETS-based transactions is locally installed, although some companies have made the foray into the law enforcement SaaS realm. TASER’s Evidence.com is one example.

Cloud characteristics

NIST also broke down cloud computing’s benefits into five characteristics:

1) On-demand self service. Storage, bandwidth and other capabilities are available on an as-needed basis, without the IT manager needing to work directly with each service provider. In law enforcement terms, this would allow a commander to access increased capacity for expansion, or for specific temporary projects, without having to purchase additional physical infrastructure.

2) Broad network access. The commander could provide services over the Internet to users, through a variety of different devices. These might include report writing, project management, case management and records management, any of which can be performed from an in-cruiser laptop, mobile phone or police department desktop computer. The point is to allow officers to access services wherever and whenever it is convenient for them, in a way that maintains their ability to respond to calls for service.

3) Resource pooling. Perhaps the most familiar concept to law enforcement agencies (yet not widely adopted in the business world), this simply means that organizations pool money, people and other resources to build IT infrastructure and support.

A number of examples exist in regional pockets around the country. Just as more people live further from their jobs and commute to work, more criminals travel greater distances in search of broader markets (as in the drug trade) and also to evade law enforcement. This increases the likelihood that they’ll have contact with multiple law enforcement agencies.

In an effort to keep track of what criminals are doing and also to keep their officers safe, police departments in a given region form groups governed by memoranda of understanding (MOUs). These MOUs frequently involve how the agencies will share data like field contact forms, incident reports, and so on.

Of course, this only works if all the agencies’ databases and infrastructures are interoperable. Many police departments’ proprietary systems fail to communicate. In other cases, cloud services successfully link dozens of agencies sharing information on criminals, and specific crimes like identity theft and graffiti.

4) Rapid elasticity. This can be significant for an agency. The ability to scale requirements up or down has never been an inexpensive proposition, especially if needed quickly. Cloud computing allows for quick service expansion or reduction without high overhead.

When might an agency need such an expansion or reduction? Examples might be large-scale events (from the Olympics all the way down to Motorcycle Week), massive manhunts, or disasters.

Rapid elasticity also has important implications for continuity. In a huge natural disaster, locally stored servers and the machines used to access them could be knocked out by flooding or high winds. Off-site cloud infrastructure, however, could help to prevent this.

5) Measured service. This alone can be a great means to control expenses. Commanders can purchase only the services their agencies need (or can afford) and limit the amount of time and access to a given processing rate, storage capacity, active user accounts, or time limit. This metered concept could effectively help to repair deficits.

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