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For many in federal IT, the cloud remains hazy

cloud concept with man in suit

Federal IT shops are still struggling to implement broad mobility, security and cloud services and solutions – and that's all after overcoming the multiple challenges of acquiring those kinds of technologies.

Those difficulties were apparent in remarks by a diverse panel of federal CIOs who spoke Aug. 7 at a Vienna, Va., conference about their experiences in contracting, implementing and managing mobile, security and cloud-based services.

Acquiring mobile and cloud technologies with contracts that have been written to rigid parameters is among DHS' biggest challenges, said Luke Berndt, program manager for DHS Science and Technology Directorate at a panel discussion hosted by immixGroup.

Because S&T does cutting-edge technological research and development for federal agencies, writing contracts with some flexibility and innovation for services and gear used in its work is difficult. "We can do broad agency announcements" that request information from industry," Berndt said, "but it's still a slog" because those broad announcements don't allow for some of the critical details.

While DHS uses broad government-wide contracting vehicles, it also works to develop more targeted contracts for research work..

Injecting innovation into procurement and contracting shouldn't be left to vendors, said Barry West, CIO at the Pension Benefit and Guaranty Corp., the independent federal agency that keeps a watch on U.S. pension plans.

West contended that innovative solutions for evolving, disruptive technologies such as mobile communications, cloud capabilities and cybersecurity at federal agencies are the responsibility of those agencies, not vendors. Agency leaders "need to work closely with their acquisition shops" to insure more-precisely drawn requests for proposals, he said. If an agency's leadership involves IT and the agency's business operations in developing and writing an RFP, the benefits show. "If it's done right, government knows what solutions it wants and can get it." That doesn't mean that industry should be left out, however. Achieving a balanced, innovative mobility, cloud or security solution requires input from all sides, he said.

Despite the myriad difficult challenges presented by acquiring and deploying fast-moving technologies, federal agency CIOs should count themselves lucky. Things could be a lot worse. They could be working in the confusing world of a multinational security organization that deals with dozens of computing and networking languages, and with 28 separate governments that use two human languages to do business.

Curtis Levinson, U.S. cyber defense advisor to NATO, said the acquisition process at his organization can be "terribly, painfully long." The military alliance has 28 member states across North America and Europe that sometimes approach technology in 28 different ways, which can make coming up with uniform technological solutions across the organization difficult..

But European countries and NATO, he said, at least have  a common starting point for cloud services —one provided by the U.S. government. While panelists agreed that one of the central problems for federal agencies is the perceived lack of a common definition of evolving technologies like "the cloud," and "big data," Levinson pointed out that what constitutes the cloud has already been spelled out by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which has a set of documents that essentially define the cloud and its parts. European governments are familiar with those documents, he said, but U.S. agencies aren't.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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