WASHINGTON -- Cloud computing, identified by the White House as a chief priority for the federal government, is slowly gaining traction throughout the agencies, which CIOs are steering toward a point where unique, mission-critical applications will join commodity functions like email in the cloud, federal IT executives said Thursday during a panel discussion here at a government cloud computing conference.The formal beginning of that transition might be traced to November 2010, when a top Office of Management and Budget (OMB) official announced the "cloud-first" policy, directing agencies to prioritize cloud computing technologies as they consider new IT rollouts.[Related: Federal CIOs Must Embrace Hybrid IT in Shift to Cloud]Coming from on high, that mandate may have helped set the tone for a government-wide shift, but agencies likely would have warmed to cloud technologies on their own as they sought new cost savings and developed compelling business cases, according to Department of Commerce CIO Simon Szykman.[Related: Amazon Web Services Gets FedRAMP Certification for US Government Cloud Use]"I think the cloud-first policy was very influential at creating conversation around cloud, but honestly, I'm one of those people who thinks that we would be moving in that direction even without a cloud-first policy," Szykman says. "I think it was a wave that was approaching with or without that policy." Cloud More Than a CommodityBut the federal march toward the cloud, even if inevitable, is hardly without its obstacles, and nowhere near complete.Panelists at the Federal Cloud Computing Summit said that the early government efforts have generally focused on replacing basic applications like email with cloud-based offerings. That leaves more ambitious efforts such as infrastructure plays and custom business-process applications still ahead on the roadmap. [Related: Government IT's Move to Cloud Slowed by Security Concerns, Misconceptions]"Where the business meets the cloud is still an open question, because mission programs and mission applications have not yet really been considering the cloud as a possible solution, because we haven't turned it into a business resource. It's still very much a technology solution where IT is defining what the cloud is and working with the cloud. What the cloud is for the business is something we have to really evolve towards, and I think we have some hurdles to cross there," says Hamid Ouyachi, CTO at the Department of Labor."The social value, in a sense, of cloud within the organization will become interesting when it becomes technologically boring," he adds.Such projects are underway. Looking ahead at the 2020 U.S. Census, for instance, Szykman describes plans to support the fleet of tens of thousands of temporary workers the Commerce Department dispatches into the field for that project with a cloud-based virtual desktop infrastructure. In some ways, the labor effort behind the Census is a neat fit for a go\nvernment agency looking to test the waters with new technologies. For one, the workforce behind the project is thoroughly mobile, with field workers fanned out across the country to collect household data. Also, coming every 10 years, the Census is tailor-made for a scalable computing platform that can ramp up quickly to provide computing resources for the endeavor, and then wind down once it is completed.Government Sees Cost Savings and Agility in the CloudAgencies across government are seeking that same spirit of flexibility as they move to the cloud, a shift impelled not only by the anticipated cost savings, but also a desire for greater agility and responsiveness in IT, according to Kathy Conrad, the principal deputy associate administrator at the General Services Division's Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies."As you hit peaks and valleys of demand for service, you can provision cloud much more rapidly and much more effectively than you can an aging infrastructure of a bunch of servers that you're investing a ton of money in," Conrad says. "It's not just being agile, but it's also being able to hit the performance levels that you need, when you need them."Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com. Follow Kenneth on Twitter @kecorb. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.