IaaS: The benefits and limitations
Blanket purchase agreements allow for many offerings
The cloud-first component of the 25-Point Implementation Plan to Reform Federal IT Management asked for the creation of a contract vehicle for secure infrastructure-as-a-service solutions. As the General Services Administration explains: “A major element of every federal agency's IT infrastructure includes storage, computing power and website hosting. Infrastructure as a service can help you realize cost savings, efficiencies and modernization without having to expand your existing infrastructure.”
Thanks to this work, today government agencies can easily purchase IaaS offerings from a series of blanket purchase agreements GSA awarded at the end of 2010 with a $76.6 million ceiling. The choices include hosted storage, virtual machines and Web services available from vendors through Apps.gov. Other agencies are creating their own IaaS offerings, too. The Department of the Interior, for instance, has an IaaS solution called Foundation Cloud Hosting Services.
However, these are examples of true early adopters. IaaS is only just starting to gain wider adoption in the public sector. This may be because there are still many CIOs and IT staffers who don’t understand what IaaS is and what it can and can’t be used for. Misconceptions abound, says Beth Cohen, a thought leader at the Advisory Council. “Agencies really don’t know what it is,” says Cohen, who is currently creating a proposal to develop an IaaS platform for an East Coast state.
What’s in a name?
At its most basic level, IaaS is the provisioning of processing, storage, networks and other fundamental computing resources so users can deploy, control and run software, operating systems and applications as well as some limited storage offerings. It allows agencies to find great cost savings because they are paying on a consumption basis. It also gives agencies a great deal of flexibility and agility, allowing for rapid deployment of applications on a standardized platform. Today, what might have taken six to 12 months to build on the premises can be achieved in as little as eight to 12 weeks.
“Developers get the ability to stand up test and development and move into production very quickly,” agrees Cohen. They also get to change the amount of computing power, memory or storage they are using — almost on the fly. Software providers are also getting into the game, offering agencies and other users preassembled middleware, processing and networking templates so they don’t have to work as hard to get their software to run in a cloud implementation.
Combined, these tools and improvements transfer the cost and maintenance of infrastructure from the agency to the cloud provider, but it can only work if CIOs request and require specific elements in service-level agreements, says Kyra Kozemchak, a senior research analyst at Deltek, a software, services and research provider based in Herndon, Va. Personnel can also become an issue because IT staffers must learn how to support technology that doesn’t reside in their data center.
It’s easy to forget that IaaS entails more than just maintaining operating systems and software. IT is, in some cases, still responsible for disaster recovery and archiving, although many cloud providers offer disaster recovery services as part of their service offerings. Scalability is a special concern, too, says Cohen. CIOs may find themselves dealing with frustrated developers if their environments can’t scale as quickly and seamlessly as possible during spikes. In these cases, IaaS providers that offer auto-scaling might make the most sense.
This is why experts say agencies should ask plenty of questions when it comes to securing an IaaS provider. Even something as simple as pricing, which for many IaaS providers is set in stone, might be up for discussion. Those agencies that can reserve resources in advance might find additional savings.