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Can federal IT lead the way in secure cloud?

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As private companies race each other to replace outmoded IT systems with cloud services, the federal government falls further and further behind in cloud adoption. The usual culprits are easy to find: byzantine procurement and cloud certification requirements, government CIOs stuck in the past, and a dysfunctional culture that rewards outsourcing IT strategy -- and responsibility -- to the lowest bidder. It sounds terrible – but is it reality?

Lost in all this noise are the unique challenges of federal IT. The first is scale – with a forecasted 2017 budget of $89.9 billion, the sheer number of programs, systems and data centers dwarfs not just private companies, but even some private markets. A second obvious challenge is accountability – every purchase decision made is subject to audit, protest and the political process.

Security and compliance pose a third vital challenge, also shared by the private sector, but uniquely burdensome for federal CIOs. We cannot afford to ignore the higher stakes involved in protecting federal government data from hackers motivated by more than just financial gain and backed by the resources of nation-state adversaries. We may count the cost of a corporate data breach in pennies per share but losing federal data -- as in the recent OPM hack -- will likely cost lives and even compromise national security.

The federal government's 2017 budget request notes that it currently spends about 8 percent of its IT budget on cloud – not much less than the largest banks did just a year or two ago. IDC Research projects this to rise to an astounding 50 percent in just two years.

New federal CIOs recruited from the private sector often fail to appreciate the complexity of executing a cloud transformation strategy within the confines of federal procurement rules. To make this incredible growth possible, you need consolidated standards to accelerate procurement and unleash the creativity of your workforce.

The Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) is a standardized approach to security created to increase the adoption of cloud services by the federal government while increasing the overall security of federal IT. By mapping and reusing several hundred security controls common to any agency, FedRAMP makes it easier for companies to offer compliant cloud services to the federal government, and easier for federal CIOs to rapidly procure cloud services.

FedRAMP is different from past federal certification efforts -- which often felt like mere paperwork exercises or, worse, offered an entirely false sense of security by allowing companies to merely document that their insecure products were operating as designed. FedRAMP sets clear and robust baseline standards and best practices like penetration testing and continuous monitoring. Security is an arms race against hackers that we cannot win, but properly implemented, FedRAMP is speeding cloud adoption and helping Federal IT keep security losses smaller and less destructive.

FedRAMP is delivering this -- it has already certified 60 cloud service providers for federal purchase and recent program changes will greatly accelerate the review and approval of hundreds more by reducing the up-front paperwork required from new, innovative cloud service providers. While the upfront cost of FedRAMP compliance is not trivial, this is by design. We should be careful not to focus on lowering the bar for compliance too far at the expense of better security.

Cloud is no magic bullet, however, and the consolidation of federal data into a smaller number of data centers and cloud services raises the potential consequences of a single data breach. As a result, it is vital that this historic migration of IT assets from federally owned and managed data centers into private-sector hands be used as an opportunity to increase security and "cyber hygiene" both inside and outside the federal government.

We all understand that cloud services offer better innovation at lower cost than traditional IT. Better security is another obvious gain. Put simply, letting private-sector experts patch one cloud data center is easier, cheaper and more reliable than leaving the patching of hundreds of government data centers to the lowest bidders.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency, which operates and manages the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation, successfully transformed its FCIC Escrow and the agency's roadmap via a cloud-based solution that delivered 110 percent of planned functionality for 90 percent of planned cost. Utilizing a secure FedRAMP-compliant application platform, the solution resulted in the first agency application delivered in a PaaS cloud environment and was the first re-engineered RMA financial application.

Because of the size and scope of the federal IT market, FedRAMP has the real potential to elevate the security posture of U.S. cloud service providers. This will be of at least indirect benefit to everyone, but a greater potential exists for building a more robust commercial IT infrastructure on the shoulders of FedRAMP standards. This could become a market-driven reality as more banks, health care providers, and private companies are educated on the value of demanding FedRAMP compliant cloud services and even young, innovative start-ups have access to the expertise required to deliver it.

About the Author

Michael Beckley is co-founder, chief technology officer and chief customer officer at Appian.

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