Virtualization and cloud are key features
Virtualization provides an real advantage to agencies as they tackle infrastructure improvements
Virtualization and cloud computing are key features of any advanced agency infrastructure and, if done right, will reduce complexity and cost while improving the delivery of applications and services to the end user.
The benefits of server virtualization are already well understood. Cutting down on the number of physical servers and data centers reduces complexity and drastically lowers equipment, power and cooling costs along with the real estate needed to house all that hardware. It allows for easier maintenance of software and a more streamlined provisioning of resources to meet changing demands.
It also provides for a more robust disaster recovery because it allows for automated failover in the event that some part of the infrastructure is compromised. Continuity of operations is an often under-appreciated element of infrastructure design, and virtualization enables almost instantaneous data backup and replication and facilitates movement between servers and applications.
Other kinds of virtualization — such as network, storage and application virtualization — also promise advantages for infrastructure, though desktop virtualization seems likely to be the next widely adopted form of the technology. In that, the PC operating system, applications and desktop image are stored in a server that the user accesses from the desktop through a thin client.
The advantages touted for desktop virtualization include easier and less costly management because software upgrades can be done centrally instead at each desktop and improved security because the data is not stored locally on each PC.
“I’m becoming more of a fan of virtual desktops because organizations can use them to change the infrastructure to also support more mobile devices,” said Shawn McCarthy, a research director at IDC Government Insights. “By adopting a virtual desktop environment, agencies can easily switch from PCs to such things as iPads, and they eliminate a lot of the infrastructure elements you otherwise need to worry about such as [operating system] patching and Internet access, which is all done at the server.”
Moving applications and services to the cloud is also an area that agencies are becoming familiar with, and a number of them have already moved non-critical applications such as e-mail to the cloud, and some are contemplating even more extensive use.
However, it’s been a slow and fairly tentative move to the cloud so far for agencies, with the major concern being over the security of the cloud and how well cloud providers will protect agency data in the cloud. And that is a concern, said Lawrence Pingree, a research director at Gartner.
He said the problem is that many providers have security baked into their networks, and although some have repurposed that security to work in a virtualized environment, there are many that don’t offer that kind of capability yet for cloud architectures.
Also, the centralization of resources that the cloud offers poses additional risk. An unforeseen failure in the cloud could quickly cascade and, because clouds can house overlapping services, a failure in one could cascade to another.
“Cloud services are not yet wholly capable of delivering the same kind of security that people have come to expect within agencies,” Pingree said, “though the government is trying to build the construct to enable [a broader transition to the cloud], and such things as [the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program] are giving those government organizations that are ready to adopt cloud services a framework for doing so.”
FedRAMP is a governmentwide program for certifying that various cloud products and solutions meet government security standards.
The cloud will be widespread at some point, but agencies need to tackle these security issues before they go to these new infrastructures, Pingree said, adding, “If I were to give them advice, it would be to tiptoe rather than run.”