FAQ: Obama's cloud initiative

President's support of cloud computing raises questions

Cloud computing got a big plug this month when President Barack Obama endorsed the technology in his 2010 budget request. The budget document highlights the benefits of cloud computing and directs agencies to launch pilot projects using the new approach. Cloud computing allows users to access applications, data storage and processing power via the Internet for a fee, while a third-party service provider shoulders the costs of building and maintaining the infrastructure.

The support in the budget request, plus Obama’s choice of cloud-computing proponent Vivek Kundra as the federal chief information officer, has many experts saying the technology is poised to be adopted at levels never seen before, though several issues still need to be resolved.

Federal Computer Week spoke to industry experts about the endorsement and the technology’s future in the federal government.

Is the cloud computing callout a big deal or not?

Yes, because it gives clear direction from the top that federal agencies should pursue cloud computing technology, according to several academic and industry sources.

The Obama administration has voiced its desire to adopt other emerging technologies, but this is the first time that it has backed that up with budgetary information to support the concept.

“In many ways, agencies have been waiting for this type of formal announcement to move forward with pilot projects as this plan suggests,” said Susie Adams, chief technology officer of Microsoft Federal.

Is now the right time to push for this?

Several industry experts think so, because cloud computing works well with ongoing data center consolidation and virtualization projects. Although those efforts reduce costs, agencies need other ways to further drive down infrastructure spending, and cloud computing fits the bill, said David Mihalchik, manager of Google’s federal business development team.

But agencies will need to proceed cautiously. “I foresee that only a small fraction of critical government IT will take place on the public cloud initially, and the ones that do will be highly secured for Internet-scale attacks and have significant legal ramifications should the cloud provider violate any agreements,” said Adam Vincent, Layer 7 Technologies’ public sector CTO.

What security issues do government agencies face in the cloud?

In a true public-cloud model a third party owns and operates the computer infrastructure, so agencies would need to rely on those providers to meet security mandates, such as the Federal Information Security Management Act.

In the more likely scenario, some agencies, or a coalition of agencies, will operate a private cloud in which certain services or data are kept behind government firewalls.

“In these hybrid models, customer databases can still reside inside the firewall so the crown jewels never leave the castle,” said Steve Picot, manager of Cisco Federal’s data center team.

The private-cloud model could be augmented using software as a service so that processing or collaboration functions can exist externally.

Government agencies will likely adopt the private-cloud model because of the security and compliance issues that exist with a public cloud, said Randal Bryant, a professor and dean of the computer science school at Carnegie Mellon University. Government operations are big enough that a private cloud would have the same economies of scale found with a public cloud, he said.

What are the ramifications for procurement practices?

With cloud computing, agencies buy services, not infrastructure. Capital expenses would drop, but recurring costs would rise. This will require agencies to change how they do business, said Bill Vass, president of Sun Microsystems Federal.

“Procurement processes need to become more agile and must foster the ability for different parts of the government to share IT costs,” Vass said.

Initially, competition might suffer as an unintended consequence of moving to a cloud infrastructure, said John George, senior vice president and CIO of Vangent, an information management company. Today, agencies can use different vendors' hardware platforms.

“With cloud computing, the standards don’t exist to support a similar type of move,” he said. “Contracting officers will need to specify a set of rigorous standards that will allow the government to take full advantage of competition.”

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

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