Census Bureau Counting Heads in the Cloud

Web-based apps and infrastructure-as-a-service are a hit for 2010 Census.

By Carolyn Duffy Marsan
Tue, July 06, 2010

Network World — The U.S. Census Bureau is singing the praises of cloud computing.

Census is taking advantage of several cloud-based computing services -- from content delivery networks to hosted applications to free Web-based services -- for its decennial survey.

Public vs private cloud

Census CIO Brian McGrath says the bureau has had a great experience buying software and infrastructure as a service, and that this approach has been an efficient and cost-effective way to meet the peak processing demands from the 2010 Census.

"We use the cloud in eight specific instances around the decennial survey," McGrath says. "That provided a huge benefit for us because we didn't have to stand up an infrastructure. We knew our requirements were for a definite period of time."

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The Census Bureau's positive experience with cloud computing comes at a time when U.S. government agencies are being encouraged by Federal CIO Vivek Kundra to embrace cloud computing as a way of saving taxpayer dollars. Supporting Kundra's position, a recent Brookings Institute survey estimated that government agencies can save between 25% and 50% by using cloud-based computing services instead of internal IT resources.

Industry observers say many agencies like Census are interested in building their own private clouds.

"Fear of information being made available over the public Internet is keeping federal agencies from wanting to use the public Internet as the cloud," says Susan Zeleniak, group president of Verizon Federal. "They're going to want to use private clouds. That's what we see more."

Census said it spent $11.8 million altogether on the eight cloud computing efforts that supported the 2010 Census.

In January, Census began using Akamai to enhance the performance of its redesigned Web site -- www.census2010 -- which features video clips, blogs and other interactive content aimed at citizens. The new Web site attracted 4 million to 5 million hits a week at its peak, about double the traffic of the bureau's legacy Web site -- www.census.gov -- aimed at statisticians.

"For our new Web site, we went to the cloud," McGrath says. "We went with an infrastructure-as-a-service solution, and what a great experience that was. We contracted with Akamai to use their CDN…At the peak of our usage, we were servicing somewhere around 85% of our content from the edge, and it was not even coming back to our infrastructure."

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