A decade ago e-government was pretty much the buzz word around technology circles, there was a dream of this utopia like environment where governments would provide services ‘on the fly’ eliminating bureaucracy and paper trails and the usual government inefficiencies. Fast forward to 2009 and the pipe dream lives on albeit with less hype. Perhaps the main reason why e-government did not take up as expected is probably due to the divergence of its constituent disciplines. On one hand there is the young, efficient market driven technology and on the other hand there is the iconoclastic, bureaucratic and inefficient politics and policy making. They probably do not mix well at first but as we all know politics is all about compromise.

The traditional e-government paradigm was structured along technical advancements and feasibility at that particular time. Most of the developed economies adopted certain levels of e-government around the late eighties and early nineties, then the internet as we know it today was at its infancy, computing technology was relatively expensive, most vendors were too small to handle government data crunching and most technology offerings were too skewed to handle general e-government requirements. It made sense then for the government to step in and invest in massive technology infrastructure to support its requirements. Some projects were successful, some wallowed in government bureaucracy and some ended up as dismal failures with crucial lessons learnt along the way.

A little over a week ago, the Kenyan government announced a $200m plan to setup data centres that would service e-government requirements on an apparently public and private sector partnership, the latter entity usually denotes cronyism in most government terms. Anyway, although on paper, a developing country like Kenya does need to invest and take advantage of the efficiency of technology, it certainly is no excuse to adopt an outdated paradigm. Maybe its just a government thing, other governments have been guilty of the same including the British governments’ over indulgence in an automated healthcare system for its NHS; National Health Service in the mid-nineties. The system ended up being grossly outdated when it went live and it was back to the drawing board for a new system.

Cloud computing, SaaS; Software as a Service and related buzzwords have made leeway into technology and business circles of late, uneasy economic times have propelled cloud computing to greater heights. The technology has essentially been available over the better part of the last decade, its just that advances in server virtualisation and decreasing bandwidth costs and the economics of service based computing have pushed cloud computing into the forefront of technology. What cloud computing does is it essentially provides an interface for end users to consume technology services with code running remotely and in most cases over multiple machines in possibly different geographic locations. A good example is Gmail which could have its core functionality running from a data centre in Mountain View, California and auxiliary services such as search and advertising from servers in Zurich and Bangalore. As far as the end user is concerned its a seamless application but the technology behind it is more like a jigsaw puzzle.

In a nutshell, a country like Kenya with one of the most expensive electricity rates in the world, there is no economic justification for building costly data centres. First and foremost there is no need currently by such a government for expansive computation facilities. E-government as it exists today in Kenya is pretty much at its infancy. As far as such a government is concerned e-government is setting up websites for all the ministries and e-mails for key personnel and putting fancy pictures and “utopic” philosophies on the websites. Even if the initiative is there for setting up proper ­e-governance mechanisms, that will take time and by the time such efforts bear fruit, the proposed data centres would have passed their sell by date, given the fact that the typical lifetime of optimal performance by a server lies between 5-8 years or even less for more demanding applications. After this period the hardware is far too old to cope with the evolved technology.

A cloud computing option would offer scalability, flexibility, security and extraordinary economic viability. Scalability in the sense that additional computation requirements can be requested and utilised on an on demand basis, that does not require building of extra data centres and service providers usually do have excess capacity or extra capacity can be sourced from another vendor. Flexible in the sense that data can be pushed and consumed virtually anywhere in the world, between government departments e.t.c. Data centre vendors specialise in providing state of the art and stable computation facilities, that is their core business, thus its more likely that the facilities they own would be more secure against malicious attacks than a data centre operated as a ancillary operation to core business processes.

The most important aspect of cloud computing is the extraordinary economics it offers. Buyers only pay for a finite amount of computation whether it is billed on metrics of time or data computed, the end result is the same. What is charged is how much you have used rather than investing into costly data centres and having them run at less than 20% of their capacity. Secondly, data centres are clustered around areas where running costs are much lower than other areas, giving data centre vendors competitive advantages i.e. Indian data centres with lower skilled labour costs and New Zealand data centres with lower electricity costs. Despite iconoclasm exhibited by certain technocrats or sheer ignorance by policy makers, the cloud computing paradigm is going to thrive with the present economic conditions giving it an unexpected boost.

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On Misplaced Priorities and Outdated Paradigms



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