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Cloud-Based Services: It's All Silver Lining for Public Safety

Author: Michael Nelson, VP, Senior Technical Officer, Intrado

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2013-08-03
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Cloud-based services give public safety agencies fast, easy access to feature functionality on a flexible, scalable and secure infrastructure.

For directors of public safety answering points (PSAPs), implementing the most advanced emergency communications technology while still functioning within a finite budget seems impossible. The reality is that ongoing technology obsolescence is a looming concern for nearly every PSAP from coast-to-coast. The costs associated with updating these essential on-premises systems, not to mention the day-to-day maintenance and security issues, are significant and limit most public safety agencies ability to implement new feature functionalities as they become available.

Cloud-based computing, however, changes all that for public safety agencies. By moving premises-based technology infrastructures to off-site, managed, cloud-based solutions, PSAPs can experience real benefits in terms of flexibility, scalability, and security. What is more, by moving your technology solutions to the cloud, you will have seamless on-demand access to the newest feature functionality as soon as it is available with no capital investment, no system implementation, no maintenance, no worry and no risk.


Not Your Responsibility

Modern emergency communications rely heavily upon technology. From call-taking equipment to geographic location information to computer-aided dispatch (CAD), today’s PSAP directors spend significant amounts of time, money and staff on the acquisition, implementation and maintenance of technology that is housed within their physical structure. Every function that an emergency communications center provides requires a capital investment for a specific technology that has a life span of five to ten years, yet may be obsolete in as little as 18 to 24 months. And every one of those technologies requires ongoing maintenance to ensure proper function, operation and security.

Cloud-based computing allows PSAPs to purchase a managed service from a provider that specializes in 9-1-1 technology. The provider supplies and maintains all or part of the required 9-1-1 infrastructure. The PSAP pays a flat fee per month based upon the functionality they choose to implement. The physical technology is housed in off-site, provider-managed facilities with a high degree of security and geographic redundancy. The PSAP retains full control, including ownership, management and access to all of their public safety data, while the provider takes full responsibility for the technology and infrastructure. This includes 24/7/365 maintenance at the off-site locations as well as ongoing technology upgrades as they become available. This model allows PSAP directors to be less concerned about managing and maintaining equipment so they can focus their attention on the mission-critical tasks of center.

This shift in responsibility has a significant impact on the quality and breadth of service that a center can provide. Not only will the PSAP have the most updated technology at all times, eliminating concerns about obsolescence, but can also purchase the exact feature functionality needed to serve their jurisdiction. In this manner the PSAP can fully customize their cloud solution, scale functionality up and down on demand, and have fast, easy access to new capabilities as soon as they become available. What is more, cloud-based solutions can offer seamless interoperability with all standards-based on-premises and third-party solutions allowing PSAPs to utilize existing capital investments as part of their overall technical solutions.

For the PSAP there is little to no risk because the burden of delivering the best solutions possible is on the shoulders of the technology supplier. With cloud-based services, all competitive barriers are torn down because PSAPs are not locked into a single vendor for extended periods of time. It’s a simple task to shop the competition and try on as many hats as you like. It’s possible for a PSAP to test the same solution from multiple vendors in order to find the one they like best. Cloud-based solution providers recognize that they must deliver the best service and solutions at all times or their customers will simply move on.


Safe and Secure

The security of a cloud-based 9-1-1 architecture and the data stored in that system is critical. Because of this, public safety cloud-based architectures are dedicated infrastructures that have been purpose built from the ground up to offer emergency communication solutions to public safety agencies exclusively. The systems are parallel to but isolated from commercial and public clouds, much like a next-generation emergency services IP network (ESInet) is separate but parallel to the public IP network. While a single public safety cloud platform may service multiple PSAPs in numerous states, each entity has segregation of data and security.

In order to guarantee the security of their public safety cloud, any reputable provider will incorporate physical-level security in the types of connections used to deploy solutions to PSAPs. Additionally, application-level security must be implemented as well as personnel and process security mechanisms. It’s important to understand, however, that these are the same types of security issues faced by PSAPs with on-premises architectures. The primary difference is that with cloud-based solutions there are fewer redundant locations to secure and monitor, and the vendor shoulders the security burden. When the PSAP owns and manages on-premises solutions, they must also own the security mechanism responsibilities, including firewalls, video surveillance, physical access, process, procedures, tools, trouble shooting, investigation and personnel security concerns.  In a cloud model, the vendor specializes in the system security and system operation, allowing the PSAP to focus on their business services and operations.


Engineered to Perform

In any IT environment, successful cloud implementation is dependent upon the performance level of the cloud network. In the public safety realm, performance is pivotal because lives are at stake. As more and more PSAPs consider moving their applications to the cloud and as increasing amounts of Next-Generation 9-1-1 data are introduced, bandwidth and network latency are critical considerations. If a PSAP’s applications and data are not instantly accessible then the cloud becomes a life-threatening liability rather than a life-saving asset.

In terms of bandwidth, the public safety cloud has a distinct advantage over other cloud environments. Because a public safety cloud operates on a dedicated, managed ESInet, the network traffic is limited to public safety users so there is less threat of a bandwidth bottleneck. At first glance, it might appear risky to run 9-1-1 voice calls over the same network as data applications, however, in the case of an ESInet, the performance of the network is structured specifically to meet emergency communications needs. This allows for public-safety-grade quality of service (QoS) and a strict segregation of traffic by priority. During high-traffic situations, predetermined business rules dictate network traffic flow giving voice calls priority over other supplemental applications. Additionally, the dedicated nature of the ESInet means that the 9-1-1 service provider owns and manages every network connection between the on-premises PSAP hardware and the remote cloud applications. This unique architecture provides a level of control that does not exist in public or commercial cloud environments, allowing packets to be transferred across the network effectively and efficiently.


Stable and Predictable

The cost of cloud computing relative to that of an on-premises architecture is not an apples-to-apples comparison so it can be challenging to produce a quantitative return-on-investment comparison. The true cost-benefit of cloud computing is the elimination of large capital investments, the stabilizing of cash flow, and the assurance that solutions will always keep pace with the newest technology features.

Fiscal responsibility is imperative to a PSAP. The communities served by the center want to know that it is running efficiently and funding is being used effectively. But they also want to be sure that the right technology is in place to quickly get help to the scene of an emergency. With cloud computing, operational costs are stable and predictable. Money is no longer invested to own and maintain equipment that will quickly become obsolete. Rather, money is spent to access the best solutions available while allowing the PSAP to focus time and resources on mission-critical tasks because the equipment is provided, maintained, repaired, replaced and upgraded as part of the monthly service agreement. Feature functionality can be added with only incremental spending. PSAPs have the freedom to purchase only the functionality they need rather than being forced to buy capabilities they won’t use as a part of a bundled package.

When conducting a cost comparison between on-premises and cloud-based architectures, redundancy is a budgetary line item that is often overlooked. With a traditional on-premises system, creating a reliable alternate operational site requires two times the capital investment to establish a full duplicate architecture. These figures don’t even include the cost to house the redundant system at an alternate location. With a cloud-based architecture, redundancy is built into the system as well as the service agreement, and there doesn’t need to be any thought of an additional location because the platform is offsite by design.

As a corollary, the innate and remote redundancy of the cloud provides simplified and improved operational continuity in the face of a crisis that threatens the physical structure of a PSAP. On-premises systems are directly tied to the primary emergency communications center because there are physical connections between the call-taking equipment and the technology infrastructure. Cloud-based solutions are independent of location because the connectivity to the cloud is IP based. As long as a PSAP maintains an IP connection to the cloud, whether it is based on terrestrial access or wireless broadband access, calls can be answered and solutions can be accessed from anywhere, whether it is a neighboring PSAP or a mobile communications vehicle. This provides PSAPs with a virtual replica of their operations without costly static backup locations that are often geographically vulnerable to the same crisis that compromised the primary facility.


No Risk. All Reward

As emergency communications continue to modernize, cloud-based solutions provide PSAPs with a viable, robust and secure alternative to traditional on-premises architectures. By looking to the cloud, PSAPs can have enhanced performance and availability of features, simplified IT maintenance and support, improved security management and more reliable operational continuity, all while diminishing large capital investments and stabilizing cash flow.


Michael Nelson is the Vice President and Senior Technical Officer for Intrado, providing guidance for the company’s next generation products.   With over 30 years experience in software engineering, telecommunications and information technology, Mr. Nelson served as Vice President of Software Engineering at Intrado, leading the specification and development of their next generation Emergency Services IP Network (ESInet) product.   He is product development leader in the areas of call processing, large databases, GIS, client server applications, and management systems. He holds six patents related to emergency call services.

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