When custom software was king

Government's history of adopting commercial software bodes well for cloud technologies

Before the public Internet and cloud computing, government agencies had to build custom technology from scratch in order to share files and douments internally. In fact, many of the tools that are readily available at little or no cost today once had to be developed anew for each customer.

“We didn’t have modern e-mail 20 years ago,” said Arlene Minkiewicz, chief scientist at Price Systems. “Communications technology needed to be custom-developed for organizations’ specific networking systems and other requirements.”

Out of necessity, government agencies got in the habit of designing technology to address specific needs, security issues and other factors, she said. As a result, the government dominated the market in developing and using sophisticated technology.

However, commercial technology soon caught up to government systems, and the Internet and its communications protocols played a key role in that shift, Minkiewicz said.

The government’s transition to commercial products might appear slow to some observers, but agency leaders now recognize the benefits of using standards-based technology, said Susie Adams, Microsoft Federal’s chief technology officer. And the level of acceptance of commercial products indicates that agencies will be willing to use cloud-computing technology, she added.

That’s because commercial standards address agencies’ biggest concern about cloud computing: security. The requirements under the Federal Information Security Management Act are similar to the security requirements of commercial standard ISO 27001, Adams said.

“If you look at the requirements for government and commercial, even from a security perspective, they are very similar, but the government just calls them something different than the commercial world,” she said.

Agency leaders who are considering the switch to cloud-based computing should identify the workloads and systems they feel comfortable moving to the cloud, Adams said. Then they should decide if a public, multiuser cloud solution is acceptable. If it is not, they can choose a hybrid approach in which the agency connects to a rack of servers at a shared government facility via a dedicated network connection.

In some situations, government agencies don’t buy commercial products because they don’t know what’s available that can meet their specific needs, said Adam Vincent, chief technology officer at Layer 7 Technologies’ public sector.

“With the new Apps.gov online store, the government has increased the likelihood that government programs will find the appropriate applications for their particular needs, if they look for them,” Vincent said.

However, the storefront’s technology should not be one-size-fits-all.

“It's critical that the products available though Apps.gov maintain a level of flexibility so that the integrator can customize them to meet customers’ needs,” Vincent said. “It's also critical that low-cost vs. higher-cost alternatives are compared and contrasted to maximize the buyers’ ability to determine which product meets their needs today and which will support the future evolution as a program.”

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

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