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.

About the Author

John Zyskowski is a senior editor of Federal Computer Week. Follow him on Twitter: @ZyskowskiWriter.

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