More Efficiency, More Effectiveness Lie in the Cloud

By Scott Harris, Freelance Writer

Police Chief Magazine

Over the past several years, moving data to the cloud has become a widespread trend. In a nutshell, a “cloud” is a network of servers that exist off of a given premises. A cloud allows its users to store digital files and other data and run software or applications remotely and then access their files from any location with any device that has an Internet connection.

Because cloud users don’t have to install, store, or manage these resources themselves, they gain a greater ability to focus on their own core functions or mission areas. This means greater flexibility across the board and major savings on IT infrastructure and time compared with more traditional setups.

Given these benefits, it should come as no surprise to learn that the cloud is growing larger all the time. According to a 2014 study from global tech consultant Forrester, the public cloud market will grow from a $58 billion industry in 2013 to a $191 billion industry by 2020.1 Additionally, fields ranging from education to banking to insurance are increasingly adopting cloud computing for a whole host of functions.

Many law enforcement and public safety agencies may already use cloud computing for basic operations like Email. At the same time, though, the cloud is becoming a larger part of many functions that are directly pertinent to law enforcement.

InfoStreet’s SkyDesktop is a cloud-based network structure that allows companies of all sizes to sign up and pay a set amount each month to securely store data in the cloud. “In the mid-1990s, we thought of it as an operating system in the sky,” said Siamak Farah, CEO and Director of InfoStreet, a Tarzana, California, firm that provides cloud computing solutions to small businesses. “It’s the foundation of what everyone knows as the cloud of today… What makes it so relevant [for law enforcement] is the question of when do you have to go back to the station or not. With the advent of the cloud, things can get done regardless of where you are. The advantage of the cloud is that it’s always with you.”

Security

One of the primary concerns that can arise in cloud computing, particularly for police departments, is security. Stories of high-profile hacks in which hackers illicitly enter a cloud and steal and disseminate sensitive data regularly circulate in the news. Such a scenario would be a nightmare for any police department.

According to Farah, though, the horror stories are far outweighed by the breaches that never happen, thanks to layers of security. In fact, data stored in a cloud may be safer than data that are stored locally, where security lapses may be more prone to happen and employees (both IT and otherwise) are not always sufficiently trained in IT security or best practices.

“Security has always been the priority for cloud providers. These services are substantially safer in the cloud than on premises,” Farah said. “Think of it like putting money in a bank. In a bank, you have trained people and specially made vaults. You’re not going to have that sort of thing in your home. Most police departments don’t have enough security in their offices.”

According to Ben Jordan, a business analyst for the Utah-based firm Spillman Technologies, cloud computing vendors must comply with the same standards that all firms do when working with criminal justice information. These standards are set forth in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Security Policy, which establishes a large range of requirements and practices that agencies and their vendors must meet if they desire access to the FBI CJIS Division’s various systems and databases, many of which are considered indispensible tools in law enforcement.

Access and Scale

In the context of police work, perhaps the greatest advantage of the cloud is the mobility it can provide. A cloud-based solution allows officers to work in the field with the same tools they’d use if they were behind a desk.

“Mobility is the key. You find you are able to unchain yourself from the laptop,” Jordan said. “You can work from your phone or tablet and get information or perform tasks in real time, no matter where you are.”

Spillman has a longstanding reputation in many circles as a reliable service partner for the law enforcement community. One of its signature products, its computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system, is now enhanced by cloud computing. It’s one of several offerings made available under Spillman Nova, a line of Spillman products boosted by the addition of cloud computing capabilities.

“One of the biggest benefits of the CAD is that now an officer can log in and see what else has happened at that address as they drive to a call,” Jordan noted. “They can see the status of the call or update information themselves. It definitely improves their chances of knowing what’s going on around them.”

Administrators also can view the number of active calls at any given time, view the exact locations of officers, and retrieve important call information. Because of the cloud, not only is this information available, it is available anywhere from any mobile device.

Spillman Nova’s Record Management System applies the same sorts of capabilities to storing agency data. All agency data can be uploaded to the cloud and stored in one single database. Name, vehicle, and premises records, for example, can easily be managed and connected with incident-based records for quicker information gathering. What’s more, all agency data can be easily searched and edited.

Finally, Spillman Nova’s Jail Management service offers the equivalent services for the jail environment. Inmate data entry, booking, and records management are easier, smoother processes thanks to cloud computing.

Scalability is another term used to illustrate cloud computing’s advantage over traditional computing. Many industries (law enforcement among them) may have sudden spikes in their data or communications needs—and attendant spikes in the capacity they need to hold and manage those data.

Cloud computing gives customers that flexibility. When users need only a little capacity, they pay for only a little. Likewise, when they need a lot, they have the option to pay for more. Users can scale up their capacity quickly and easily, then scale down just as easily when the need subsides.

That scalability is the key concept behind ArcAngel, a suite of incident communication and analysis tools from Patrocinium, a Virginia-based safety and security analytics firm. From a patrol car and a tablet, an officer using ArcAngel can go through copious amounts of public data for up-to-the-second information on an area he or she designates.

“Now, the big deal is scalability. There is more data floating around each day and you need to be able to scale,” said Patrocinium CEO John South. “During big events or a big moment, you can ramp up. [The cloud] gives you the ability to scale up at a reasonable cost.”

In terms of reasonable cost, police agencies can also lower their staffing and hardware costs by essentially outsourcing IT maintenance and installation to the cloud.

Jordan estimates that a single server can cost as much as $2,000, while a single IT support employee can command a salary of $50,000 or more. Avoiding those kinds of expenditures can add up quickly to substantial savings for large or small agencies. Jordan added that time can also be saved, because software upgrades are no longer as frequent, since the cloud vendors typically stay on top of those details directly.

“It’s easy to upgrade, because [cloud vendors] just push the updates out to servers,” Jordan said. “There are no lengthy or costly installation processes.”

It seems time is a driving factor these days. A cloud-based application developed to help better organize and save time is Schedule Anywhere, which allows departments to set up a staff calendar in any way they wish, then manage that calendar as they see fit. And, as with other cloud computing innovations, it can all happen remotely.

“Much like data, businesses need to run requests and handle schedules any time from anywhere, so it’s important for us to be available 24/7,” said Paul Baumgartner, vice president of business sales for Atlas Business Solutions, the Fargo, North Dakota, firm that developed ScheduleAnywhere. “Officers instantly get scheduled and can request to pick up shifts. Most people don’t have the tools to request time off. But with us, there’s no filling out paper forms and submitting them.”

ScheduleAnywhere, which Baumgartner said can be fully installed and running in as little as one day, can reduce the time it takes for an employee to act as a staff’s schedule administrator by as much as 75 percent.

“You can set up the layout of the schedule and the look and feel,” Baumgartner said. “You can organize by duties or anything else. You decide how you want it to be. You tailor it to your department.”

When coordinating schedules, collaborating on cases, or handling data in any capacity, cloud computing offers flexibility, scalability, and mobility. As with any new technology, agencies will need to consider new policies and best practices for its use, but it’s clear that the cloud is quickly becoming a standard tool for many industries, including law enforcement.

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