Public or private, the cloud makes its business case

A scaled approach to computing can pay big dividends

Testing and developing software is like a roller coaster: They both have big highs and lows.

For example, a large amount of computing power might be required to run simulations for a short time, but the need drops precipitously when testing the system in the field.

That cycle of highs and lows is one reason why government agencies should adopt cloud computing, said Dave Wennergren, the Defense Department 's deputy chief information officer.

“That is the cloud computing prize: being able to dynamically provision scale,” Wennergren said. “It is about how fast can you get it online and being able to scale up and then scale back down."

Cloud computing eliminates the need to buy hardware and pay to manage it, he said. And when demand subsides, an agency is not stuck owning hardware it doesn’t need.

That kind of flexibility is why government agencies are turning to cloud computing. Agencies can follow two basic models: develop an internal cloud that the government uses and manages or go to the public market and pay for services that agencies traditionally run internally.

The Defense Information Service Agency’s Rapid Access Computing Environment, or RACE, is an example of building a private cloud. RACE lets DOD users set up operating environments within the secured Defense Enterprise Computing Center's production environment.

Cost as a factor

Alternately, the Arlington County, Va., economic development office is using the public cloud model. Its customer relationship management system is a pay-for-service, cloud solution. County officials access the system via the Web and do not need to worry about managing the hardware and software.

The county explored buying an internally hosted CRM system but found it would be too expensive to manage, said Mike Goodrich, director of administration at Arlington's economic development agency. A potential supplier told the county that it would need five servers to host the system.

“We were not able to support the infrastructure to host it ourselves,” Goodrich said. “Then we’d have to pay maintenance on those servers, so very quickly we were talking about a six-figure architecture. That convinced us that a Web-based system was the way to go.”

The county picked Salesforce.com to manage a contacts database and track the county’s business statistics. For example, the economic development staff is assigned goals for bringing jobs to the county and filling commercial space, Goodrich said.

Salesforce.com allows county officials to track the number of jobs companies bring to the county and how many square feet of commercial space they lease.

“It allows that look into, on any given day or moment, to see how much they are working on in terms of square footage and jobs,” Goodrich said.

Before using a CRM system, the county tracked economic development statistics using spreadsheets. Its business investment group, real estate group and tourism group used separate spreadsheets, making it difficult to share the information with county leaders.

With a unified cloud computing system, the data is better integrated, Goodrich said.

Using cloud computing also has helped the county with its emergency preparedness planning. The county must prepare to evacuate its office in the event of threats such as a terrorist attack or an H1N1 flu outbreak. With cloud computing, county employees can work wherever they find an Internet connection.

“We’ve found having all of our contacts accessible through the cloud has really helped us to become much more flexible in the way we design work for our staff,” Goodrich said.

Another benefit the county gets from cloud computing is the ability to retain information when employees are promoted or leave the job.

“What it has done is documented our business processes,” Goodrich said. “So as those key positions are filled, we’re able to have the new hires come in and adopt the business processes that we’ve laid out.”

RACE to the future

For DOD, however, a public cloud does not offer an appropriate level of security for sensitive data. But officials still wanted a cloud computing solution with a consumer feel.

RACE delivers that experience, Wennergren said.

RACE is a self-service Web portal, with a shopping cart type of experience so DOD members can acquire computing capacity, said Rick Fleming, Hewlett-Packard’s practice principal for cloud computing.

The HP-developed portal is integrated with a billing module that goes into DOD’s finance system. It also accepts government credit cards.

“When you push the button on your shopping cart, within a matter of minutes, whatever you requested gets provisioned, and then you get an e-mail back” confirming the request and providing a host name, password and user ID, Fleming said.

The system has been so popular that DISA recently released the second version of RACE. The original version was for test and development environments. The new release allows DOD users to provision their own production environments.

Even though RACE is a private cloud, it offers similar benefits as a public cloud, Fleming said. “You are sharing resources, and servers are not sitting under tables in your office.”

And a private cloud makes it possible to collaborate in a similar manner, he added.

For example, during a humanitarian relief effort, a DOD agency could set up a temporary computer collaboration platform with noncoalition partners. The computer resources could be acquired quickly and then taken off-line just as quickly when the relief effort concludes.

And like a public cloud, the private cloud model also saves money.

“DISA is able to fully utilize their resources,” Fleming said. “It is the kind of model most of commercial industry follows where they get somewhere close to 80 percent utilization of computing, memory and storage. The model DISA is following allows them to do the same exact thing. By ensuring greater utilization of these assets, they can keep the costs down and provide their customers with the services they need.”

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

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