The Web-hosting dilemma

Outsourcing is a hot topic in the federal information technology community, and there are plenty of examples of the government outsourcing a business or IT function to a commercial organization. But there is one area where the government seldom outsources: Web hosting.

That may come as a surprise because Web hosting is probably one of the most frequently outsourced IT functions in the commercial world. But for a variety of reasons, the number of agencies that use the services of Web-hosting companies is very small.

In the past, it has not been cost-effective for agencies to outsource Web-hosting activities. Agencies have found them-selves with an abundance of computing and telecommunications resources for hosting their own Web services. Similarly, in most cases, the technical staff, whether composed of government employees or on-site contractors, is on hand to operate and maintain the Web servers. So it has been difficult to justify moving the management of Web services to Web-hosting companies.

However, as agencies have begun looking to the World Wide Web for delivering government services and conducting business, agency Web operations have become more complicated and difficult to manage. Issues such as availability, security, privacy and the management of additional application and database services have moved to the forefront of e-government.

Indeed, as e-government initiatives become more prominent, agencies will be leaning on IT managers to provide the infrastructure that will be needed to conduct business electronically. As those demands increase, it will be more difficult for IT managers to provide the infrastructure and expertise internally.

Consequently, the issue of cost- effectiveness is fading into the background, but another issue is emerging: trust. In order for federal IT managers to turn over operations to Web-hosting companies, they must trust vendors with what have become mission-critical operations and very sensitive data, such as personal information about citizens.

To address this issue, vendors have structured service-level agreements that define variables ranging from how the services will be hosted and how sensitive data will be treated, to how much availability will be provided and what recourse agencies have should the vendor not live up to the agreement. That may be satisfactory in a legal sense, but for most of us, trust is something that is earned, not given.

Web hosting, traditionally a relatively simple task, is growing increasingly complex month by month. It is clearly not as cost-effective as it once was for agencies to host their Web services internally.

So the technical demands of hosting today's Web applications, coupled with the privacy demands of citizens and businesses, leave federal IT managers with a dilemma. Do they entrust their Web services and the data that must accompany them to an independent firm? Or do they endeavor to build the kind of infrastructure and expertise required internally to manage their own Web services?

Plexico is vice president and chief tech-nology officer at Input, an information technology market research and mar-keting services firm in Chantilly, Va.

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