Why the Caribbean’s digital future depends upon the cloud

In 2018, many first-world countries are seeing the remarkable, disruptive impact of the digital economy. In the Caribbean, however, there is no consistent delivery of state-of-the-art information and communication technology (ICT) services from country to country, and the availability of online services to citizens can vary widely.

At the same time, Caribbean countries have seen firsthand the debilitating impact of natural disasters. The hurricanes of 2017 were a stark reminder of the need for a more strategic approach to improve resilient infrastructure. Citizens and economies of vulnerable small island states are at risk, as the loss of infrastructure including access to critical IT systems is a major impediment to both the efforts to coordinate post disaster relief efforts and to general economic recovery. The post-Hurricane Maria struggles of Dominica are a sobering reminder of the impact which natural disasters can have on a small country with limited resources. It takes months to recover core infrastructure, including ICT services, after these massive storms.

Today there are several hurdles for putting in place a new, common and resilient infrastructure benefiting consumers and businesses alike. For one, government IT departments own and manage most of the technology internally.  Given the limited resources available to these departments, this ownership model can impede on the delivery of a high-performing, “always-on” computing environment. Typically, government IT departments have cost constraints which limit their ability to maintain a state-of-the-art environment.

The availability of highly-qualified IT personnel required to run sophisticated cloud computing environments is also a contributing factor to the slow growth of cloud computing within governments in the region. Much of the time and resources are spent maintaining basic infrastructure which hampers the ability to deliver new (or improved) digital applications for citizens and businesses. Governments in the Caribbean are also playing catch-up when it comes to disaster recovery (DR) and business continuity strategies, with many IT departments lacking sophisticated backup architectures.

Call for Change by CARICOM

In 2014, the heads of government of CARICOM, consisting of 15 Caribbean nations, issued a policy directive for the creation of a single ICT space. The vision for this single ICT infrastructure serving governments, IT providers and consumers is to have common policy, legal and regulatory frameworks, a robust national and regional broadband infrastructure and secure management systems.

Cloud computing should be one of the central pillars to this strategy. The shared, distributed, on-demand architecture of the cloud mitigates many of the barriers facing government IT departments across the Caribbean:

  • Governments often lack adequate funds to purchase, provision and maintain the enabling technology for delivering modern applications and services. The ongoing need to invest in maintaining the skills of the government IT workforce is a drain on scarce resources which could be re-directed to frontline services for citizens and businesses.
  • Cloud computing promises equitable access for individual nations to an always-on, high-performing, secure infrastructure. It also ensures timely delivery of new applications and updates needed to compete in today’s economy.
  • In a single CARICOM ICT space, cloud computing infrastructure is ideal for both disaster recovery and business continuity, since systems can be configured to automatically failover to off-island data centres on unaffected islands, restoring service availability within hours if not minutes. While this won’t cover all scenarios, it will allow businesses and government offices with backup power sources to reconnect quickly to the network and critical applications.

The role of commercial cloud providers

Realizing this vision for all Caribbean countries may take some time, but the capabilities are already available through some regional cloud providers.  These local companies are building the necessary infrastructure to support the single ICT space model, and are investing in the economy to ensure it is viable for all Caribbean nations. Although there are larger cloud service providers available internationally, such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft, these major players haven’t made the move to deploy cloud computing infrastructure in the Caribbean region. Working with global cloud providers may also prove difficult for countries where privacy laws require local data storage or where the privacy laws in the hosting provider’s country differ significantly from those in CARICOM countries.

Commercial cloud providers in the region can deliver a shared, on-demand, scalable, secure and reliable cloud computing model that eliminates the need and expense for each country to build and manage their own private clouds.

Commercial cloud providers also fill an important gap in knowledge. Many government IT departments are running virtual environments, which are not synonymous with cloud computing services, as defined by ISO and NIST. Commercial cloud service providers, by the nature of their business, require their infrastructure and processes to meet these international standards, and can be of great assistance to government IT departments which lack the necessary cloud skill sets to implement and manage a recognized private or hybrid cloud environment. They can work in collaboration with existing government IT departments to ensure a reliable and high-performing environment that better serves citizens and businesses. This collaboration will also help those with a more traditional approach to ICT understand the benefits of incorporating external expertise.

There is also the matter of urgency: how best to fulfill CARICOM’s agenda for 21st century government while also helping local businesses grow and deliver new types of services that can enhance quality of life for all people? It is unrealistic to expect Caribbean governments to make the investment in the technical platforms for ISO standard business continuity and disaster management, to find and pay for the highly skilled technical resources required to manage increasingly sophisticated IT environments 24/7, nor to optimize such an environment for resilience, security and speed which modern applications require.

By partnering with commercial cloud service providers to deliver and maintain the underlying cloud infrastructure, government IT departments can focus on delivering and facilitating the endpoint applications and services to citizens and businesses.

Long-term benefits of a public-private partnership in the cloud

Many government IT departments fund their ICT requirements through capital expenditure (CAPEX) budgets. As most governments try to limit capital expenditure, it can be difficult for IT departments to get the necessary funding to support their environment, particularly in the event of non-planned projects. This can impede the progress of critical ICT projects.

In addition, since CAPEX budgets must plan for replacing end-of-life ICT equipment, it’s difficult to sustain critical frontline ICT services.  Working with a commercial cloud provider gives governments the ability to move to an operational expenditure (OPEX) model where costs are more predictable and consistent, and provide a faster, lower risk way to adopt cloud computing.

On the business side, access to a fast, flexible cloud environment encourages digital entrepreneurship. Companies can be born overnight, through access to advanced cloud and mobile technologies. Startups can focus on business development without needing to invest in and manage IT infrastructure, dramatically reducing cost of entry. A Caribbean-based cloud service brings potential for a new tech sector across the Caribbean. One needs only to look north at the rapid development of the SaaS industry to see the potential.

Better IT services is also a win-win for consumers, providing the ability to participate in the public forum, share information about political and societal developments and contribute in ways that have become commonplace elsewhere, such as online donations to political campaigns. Digital government brings greater ease in completing personal business, such as vehicle registration, obtaining a passport and paying a utility bill, with the confidence of using a secure website.

Government IT leaders, IT infrastructure experts, technology vendors and cloud service providers have much to offer by coming together in the common goal of delivering world-class digital platforms and services to the region. The fruition of a secure, cloud-based infrastructure is an important first step in building the Caribbean’s digital future.