Cloud isn't playing out like we thought

When you ask technology experts for advice about how agencies can move from the traditional, own-everything-yourself data processing days to the new cloud computing model of pay-as-you-go IT services, the most common tips you hear are to go slow, start small and pick a nonmission-critical application to test first.

The General Services Administration, Wyoming and several other government offices apparently didn’t get that memo.

They are part of a host of government entities taking the first big steps into the cloud by moving their entire enterprises and thousands of employees to commercial, cloud-based e-mail services.

It would be tough to argue that e-mail isn’t mission critical for any organization, let alone those as information intensive as most government agencies are. So why the big plunge into cloud services when conventional wisdom seems to advise against it?

It turns out that there are many good reasons to use cloud-based e-mail, and early government adopters are hardly daredevils. But their approach underscores the likelihood that the adoption of cloud computing will not follow any prewritten script, a lesson that awaits the Office of Management and Budget officials who are pushing hard for cloud adoption by requiring agencies to move at least three applications to the cloud in 18 months.

In Wyoming, state officials weren’t looking to make any statements by leading with such a high-profile application. But cloud-based e-mail had become an opportunity too good to ignore. Like many jurisdictions, Wyoming is saddled with multiple, independently operated e-mail systems, some frustratingly incompatible with one another, many redundant and, as a collection, costly to maintain, said Bob von Wolffradt, the state’s CIO.

In October 2010, Wyoming officials signed a contract to move the state’s 10,000 employees off internal messaging systems and on to Google’s cloud-based e-mail service. By going to the cloud, the state will save about $1 million a year in indirect costs and wind up with a unified messaging system that improves cross-agency communication and collaboration.

And as far as security goes — the issue that government executives say concerns them most about the cloud — Wyoming is better off in the cloud than not, von Wolffradt said. Out of curiosity, his team evaluated a few of the state’s existing messaging systems for compliance with some of the certification and accreditation requirements in the Federal Information Security Management Act, a security seal of approval that Google earned for its cloud applications last year.

“We were going to fill out this checklist for our current e-mail operations and certify ourselves, but we couldn’t get halfway through it,” von Wolffradt said. “That told us [the cloud] would be a better solution for us.”

Other government agencies are reaching similar conclusions about the benefits of commercial e-mail services, part of the cloud category called software as a service (SaaS). That helps explain why SaaS accounts for more than half of all current government spending on public cloud services, said Greg Potter, an analyst at In-Stat’s Market Data Intelligence Group and the author of a recent report about the cloud market.

But in the long run, many expect infrastructure as a service (IaaS) to claim a bigger piece of cloud computing. IaaS includes IT staples such as server processing, data storage, networks and desktop computing. It offers great potential benefits but can be more difficult to implement, hence the early popularity of the more universal SaaS applications, such as e-mail, said Shawn McCarthy, a research director at IDC Government Insights.

OMB officials have latched onto IaaS as an important tool in their initiative to reduce the number of federal data centers and slash governmentwide IT costs, said Deniece Peterson, manager of industry analysis at Input.

Apparently, agency IT executives have also come around to that view. Three years ago when Peterson started studying government cloud adoption, agencies preferred SaaS over other services. Now, more of them say IaaS will be the leading cloud application, according to a recent Input survey.

However, a potential problem looms. Government agencies have been leaning toward building private clouds for IaaS rather than using commercial public services so they can keep a tighter grip on security and control. Examples include the Defense Information Systems Agency’s Rapid Access Computing Environment and NASA’s Nebula infrastructure service.

If that trend continues, rising costs for private cloud construction could prompt a response from OMB.

“I think OMB will push back on that scale tilting too far to the private cloud because you might end up with a lot of cloud stovepipes, and that defeats the purpose,” Peterson said.

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Reader comments

Tue, Feb 15, 2011 RayW

The so called "CLOUD" reminds me of the old days where all computing was controlled by the people behind the little window (most of the folks here are probably too young to remember punch cards and computer centers). Then along came the PC and people could get what they wanted when they wanted. Then Microsoft convinced people that you have to upgrade every one to two years and buy overpriced software that only changed the interface. And over the years I have heard many rumbles from the Microsoft rumor mills that personal computers are no longer good, you must be subscription based and rent time on the software (along with all the guaranteed "updates" that you have no choice on).

The cloud, while it does seem to have some good points, is basically putting the power that the PC brought to the masses back into the hands of corporations who will control what you do. I still have a WIN XP machine that runs a very useful Microsoft Word program bought and paid for, no other fees. I also have a Win 7 machine and the latest Microsoft Office fiasco, it is surprising how many of the useful features that Microsoft used to have that are now hard to find and use. With the cloud, I would not have the option to keep my old system with my data where I know it is at and who is looking at it, it will be upgraded and moved around at the whim of the company AND I would have to pay and pay and pay to keep using it.

Yes, the cloud is great for a mobile society since no matter where you are, you should be able to get your stuff. But, you have to use what the cloud controller wants you to, not what you want to use, and you will have to pay every time you use it. And looking at some of the "social" media, I do not think the average person cares much about security and privacy (unless the word GOVERNMENT is tied to looking at it), so I will not mention that aspect again.

Mon, Feb 14, 2011 Didi Dellanno Denver, CO

I am concerned about this article influencing decision makers and IT professionals when there is little mention of the actual benefits of moving to a Cloud solution (ROI, significant cost savings, no more forklift upgrades every few years, more security, less administration, no maintenance, greater bandwidth, better spam, phishing and anti virus protection, increased productivity, platform consolidation for most large government entities...). I can go on and on and list the facts but anyone with a keyboard and blog post can post opinion without a fact based comparison and call it a day. A headline such as "The cloud isn't playing out like we thought" implies there is a problem with the SaaS model which is far from the truth. In most cases, large organizations that have moved to Google Apps have been able to retain their workforce because the cost savings has been substantial, even staggering. If the author of this article would like some facts, I would be happy to spend some time providing same. If Google Apps meets FISMA certification at the moderate level, and meets the requirements of the Federal GSA and the State of Wyoming, then why question the benefits of a move to the Cloud without fully researching the impact across all areas.

Fri, Feb 11, 2011 RS

I am not a cloud vendor, but we (government jurisdiction) are looking at Google because they are tight with security, they provide a 'government' cloud, they do not expose any data to the public, provide encryption, provide storage, provide archiving, provide docs, sites, groups,and its better, faster, and cheaper then what we can get funding for. Our taxpayers, and elected officials do not want to (and don't have it anyway)invest more money into the IT commodity services - so we must find the best available solutions for the price. Running these services in house is too much for IT budgets today. Wyoming (according to them) does not have a single email system but 14, all being paid for separately and in a duplicative fashion. We will be watching this closely too. Cant speak for federal agencies though.

Thu, Feb 10, 2011 Edmond Hennessy United States

Another interesting article and storyline. Not saying that history repeats itself, however would have been good to touch bases with Industry's Arch McGill - of Grey Cloud fame in the late 70's - early 80's. He attempted to establish a network architecture and communications service facility that has "some" common ground with today's Cloud Computing. He could have outlined the good, the bad, the ugly and the Industry pitfalls that thwarted the Grey Cloud Concept. In terms of, the article - hey, this is the Government - certainly realize what it will take to go full-bore and adopt the real target benefits of Cloud Computing - but, at least, they are starting somewhere. How long will it take and to what degree of effort to get to the real "meat" and payback - well - just ask Arch McGill....

Thu, Feb 10, 2011 Don

Respectively, that the State of Wyoming's current messaging system scores would score poorly on FISMA does NOT make the case for Federal Agencies implementing public cloud e-mail. The fact that agencies do NOT want to expose sensitive information to public clouds hosted in unmananged, unauditable, and often unknown locations is NOT a potential problem. It is what it is. The cloud industry lobby should not try to change facts. Instead, firms should actually try to provide something taxpayers need: secure, well-managed, accounable information systems.

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