Cloud Computing Gains in Federal Government

Industry leaders see rapid Federal government uptake in infrastructure-as-a-service, citizen-facing applications as agency CIOs warm to the new dynamic of cloud computing.

WASHINGTON -- The federal government may not be renowned for its operational speed or agility, and certainly IT is no exception, but federal agency CIOs and their employees have gradually been warming to the new model of cloud computing, according to a panel of industry executives speaking at a conference here on Wednesday.

"We've seen movement both in private cloud and public cloud," says Susie Adams, chief technology officer for Microsoft's federal business.

Adams and others noted that government clients are increasingly looking to commercial cloud services both for infrastructure functions like computing power and storage, and applications such as email and collaboration or CRM-like tools to deliver better citizen services.

White House Pushes Cloud

In part, that gradual shift has come at the direction of the White House, which has instructed all agencies to prioritize cloud applications and services ahead of traditional technologies when they are considering new IT projects.

The so-called cloud first policy comes alongside other initiatives to develop standards for cloud computing, formulate policies for deploying mobile technologies, and efforts to address security concerns associated with the cloud, among other programs.

But the panelists at the FedScoop cloud and cybersecurity conference also suggested that federal CIOs have been welcoming cloud services and apps behind their agency firewalls for many of the same reasons that have motivated their counterparts in the private sector to embrace the technology—cost savings, operational efficiencies and greater flexibility chief among them.

"What we're seeing emerging ... is in the infrastructure space [and] it's white hot," says Cameron Chehreh, chief enterprise engineer at General Dynamics Information Technology. "So everyone wants to get the layer of abstraction above virtualization," he adds.

"They want the self-service, they want the rapid provisioning more because IT traditionally has had the bad rap of it takes a long time to get capability and support of a mission. That's now changing. And culturally I've seen IT departments that were traditionally a little bit more stoic becoming much more responsive and agile in their approach from an infrastructure perspective," Chehreh says.

Looking at Clouds From Both Sides Now

Chehreh and speakers acknowledged that the cultural attitudes of IT workers can vary widely across the various civilian and defense agencies, just as some datasets and applications are suited for a public cloud, while others, such as classified military information, are not considered candidates for any type of cloud deployment.

But opinions within government are shifting, and it is telling that the panelists cited procedural factors like the minutia of the procurement process as the biggest impediments to federal adoption of cloud technologies, rather than more familiar concerns such as security.

"We still have a traditional procurement model in the federal government," Adams says. "When you get to the cloud you have these standard commercial contracts that no agency will accept."

Adams says that the service-level agreements that Microsoft and other cloud providers routinely include in their contracts with commercial customers don't pass muster with the agencies, which also operate under compliance obligations relating to a number of security standards unique to the federal government. Taken together, these factors mean that cloud vendors often have to rewrite their contracts, which can be hundreds of pages, from scratch in a negotiated process with their government customers.

"That's probably the biggest challenge," Adams says.

Agencies also face familiar challenges that are common to the private sector when mulling cloud deployments, particularly at the infrastructure level. Fears about vendor lock-in, for instance, suggest that agencies might need to rethink their IT architecture to ensure that they retain the flexibility to shift from one provider to another, as the need arises.

"People are absolutely terrified of having to move a workload into someone else's infrastructure and then never being able to get it out," says Gunnar Hellekson, chief of technology strategist for the U.S. public sector at open source vendor Red Hat, urging federal IT leaders to ensure their operation has a flexible architecture. "The good news is you should have been doing this anyway," he said.

Adams notes that several of the emerging trends in IT have created a "perfect storm" that casts the cloud as an even more compelling option, citing an increasingly mobile workforce, telework initiatives and the "bring your own device" dilemma.

What's more, cloud computing, where processing power can be provisioned on demand, is a natural fit for big data endeavors, meshing with a government-wide push to make more data, both structured and unstructured, available to citizens on public-facing websites.

Then, too, the Obama administration has set an ambitious goal for consolidating its data centers, with agencies reporting plans to shutter nearly 1,000 facilities by 2015 and another 472 the following year.

Through the accumulated savings in energy, infrastructure and other costs associated with maintaining data centers, the federal government is projecting that the consolidation initiative will trim more than $5 billion from the IT budget as cash-strapped agencies look to capitalize on the economic advantages the cloud can offer.

"From a policy and procedure perspective, what I think is going to help the most is decreasing budgets," Adams said. "I think it's going to be forced on people to have to do this."

Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.

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