Agency data dwells in private home -- for now

Many agencies are turning to private clouds for now, but some say bigger payoffs will come from commercial services

Cloud talk reverberated throughout 2010, but most of the actual work occurred on the private variety.

Private clouds — those maintained by an agency or contractor on the agency’s behalf — appeal to government agencies that are wary of the security and privacy risks of public clouds that are open to all comers. However, government interest isn’t purely defensive. Some IT departments view private clouds as hubs for offering shared services across agencies.

In the state sector, Michigan, Utah and Washington are among those pursuing private clouds. Michigan kicked off a pilot program earlier this year, Utah’s cloud effort is an outgrowth of data center consolidation, and Washington’s Department of Information Services launched a proof-of-concept, small-scale private cloud in the past year.

E-mail appears to be one of the most popular applications for the government's private clouds. In October, the Defense Information Systems Agency announced plans to move Army users to DISA’s Microsoft Exchange 2010 service. Similarly, the Customs and Border Protection agency plans to tap the Homeland Security Department’s e-mail service.

“It is a revolutionary way computing services are delivered,” said Richard Spires, DHS’ CIO.

Spires noted that cloud computing enables rapid, on-demand computer network access while creating an opportunity to reduce IT expenditures.

“Because cloud computing is based on resource pooling and broad network access, there is a natural economy of scale that can result in lower costs,” he said.

Government contractors such as IBM and Lockheed Martin offer private clouds for agency customers. IBM’s Federal Community Cloud launched in November, and Lockheed Martin introduced its Starfire Mission Ready Cloud service in October.

“We expect uptake to grow steadily,” said David McQueeney, chief technology officer of IBM’s U.S. Federal division. “Right now, the state of affairs is most agencies have internal deployments of private clouds.”

However, McQueeney and other IT executives say agencies will shift at least some computing chores into the public cloud.

A few already have. The Agriculture Department’s Food and Nutrition Service uses Amazon’s cloud to support an application that helps people locate retailers who accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

Jonathan Alboum, CIO of the Food and Nutrition Service, said the agency could have built the infrastructure needed to support the project, but it would have been costly and time-consuming to do so.

Bill Perlowitz, vice president of advanced technology at Apptis, said he believes more agencies will adopt the public cloud while using private clouds as an interim step. However, with private clouds, agencies won’t be able to replicate the economies of scale that have made public clouds effective, he added.

“The government is fragmented,” he said. “It will never get to the scale required to achieve that success.”

Apptis is one of 11 prime contractors selected for the General Services Administration’s infrastructure-as-a-service program, which lets agencies buy cloud services. Apptis partners with Amazon on the deal.

“We’re continuing to look at where it would make sense for DHS to use [an] outside cloud computing capability,” Spires said, adding that the department is in active discussions with GSA.

In addition, Phase 1 of the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, which provides a yardstick for assessing cloud security, is expected to launch early next year and might encourage more agencies to move to public cloud services.

Read more of 6 ideas with some 2011 bounce or return to the 2011 Federal List.

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