Does buying cloud services have to be this hard?

Shutterstock image: cloud technology connections.

John Hale is far from the first to note that federal acquisition practices make purchasing cloud services more difficult than it should be. As head of the Defense Information Systems Agency Cloud Portfolio Office, however, he sees the obstacles more often than most.

Acquisition officers "are faced with trying to buy commercial cloud capabilities with a model that was designed to buy bolts and pencils and paper," Hale said at FCW's May 3 cloud event. "It just doesn't work."

The result, he said, is often a series of workarounds to get the benefits of cloud through existing contract vehicles.

For example, a major selling point for cloud is consumption-based pricing and the rapid scalability that allows customers to avoid purchasing capacity until they need it, but that doesn't easily square with the ways government traditionally buys. So DISA has set up "project accounts" for some agencies' cloud services buys.

"You can put your money into it," Hale said, and DISA pays out the money as services are consumed. "When you get to a certain point, you get notified that you need to put more money in the pot. And if you get to a point where there are zero dollars, the services get turned off. "

The Antideficiency Act forbids a cloud service provider from continuing to provide services "if you’re not actually paying for it," Hale noted. "It’s against the law. So therefore, we always have to stay one step ahead ... so that they don’t end up in a situation where they’re forced to shut the services down."

Nor does DISA work directly with either Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure, Hale noted. "I go through a contractor like Lockheed Martin," he said, adding that most DOD agencies are similarly turning to third-party contractors to acquire cloud services.

While systems integrators and cloud brokers can play a valuable role, Hale said, "it's a bad model" if the sole purpose is to pass through the spending and get around acquisition rules.

“There is a better way to handle the acquisition piece," he said, "so we are trying to work with the [General Services Administration] to set a new policy.”

GSA recently stood up a Federal Cloud Center of Excellence, which is tackling the biggest barriers to cloud adoption: procurement, workforce education, standardized offerings and security concerns. Federal Communications Commission CIO David Bray, who is co-chairing the effort, told FCW in a separate interview that a playbook for agencies will be out this summer, while recommendations to the Office of Management and Budget could inform future governmentwide cloud policies.

Cloud procurement should be better centralized, Bray suggested. When his agency moved its operations to the cloud in 2015, "we did the procurements ourselves, which is ridiculous," he said.

More contract vehicles are available now than when the FCC embarked on its migration, but Bray said the prices different agencies pay for the same cloud service can still vary by a factor of 10 or more.

Hale, meanwhile, said at the May 3 event that DISA is "working in lockstep with GSA" make cloud acquisition easier.

Capt. Craig H. Hodge, who is the deputy CTO for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said at event that his agency relies on a full-time cloud broker to help navigate the contracting and integration challenges. The broker is a federal employee, Hodge explained, who "has contract support staff and other government employees supporting him." For ICE, he said, the broker "is the face to not just the cloud service providers but also to our customers" and to the core IT staff.

Connectivity into the agencies’ multiple cloud services has been a huge headache, Hodge said, and getting billing broken down to the point where "we can see the charges based on specific program areas" is a work in progress -- but progress is being made.

And according to the Department of Agriculture's Chad Sheridan, that incremental progress and the tricks that enable it are what agencies should be sharing.

"We don’t have enough time, money, energy or people to solve our all of our problems and only look at it ourselves," Sheridan, who is CIO of USDA's Risk Management Agency, said at the event.

Sheridan also urged agencies to charge ahead and address the challenges as they arise, rather than waiting for permission or policy changes. "See the world as it is, not as you want it to be," he said. The Federal Acquisition Regulation could certainly be improved, he acknowledged, but "the FAR is here. ... The FAR is. It does not care that we think it needs to be rewritten, it just is."

About the Author

Troy K. Schneider is editor-in-chief of FCW and GCN.

Prior to joining 1105 Media in 2012, Schneider was the New America Foundation’s Director of Media & Technology, and before that was Managing Director for Electronic Publishing at the Atlantic Media Company. The founding editor of, Schneider also helped launch the political site in the mid-1990s, and worked on the earliest online efforts of the Los Angeles Times and Newsday. He began his career in print journalism, and has written for a wide range of publications, including The New York Times,, Slate, Politico, National Journal, Governing, and many of the other titles listed above.

Schneider is a graduate of Indiana University, where his emphases were journalism, business and religious studies.

Click here for previous articles by Schneider, or connect with him on Twitter: @troyschneider.


  • FCW Perspectives
    human machine interface

    Your agency isn’t ready for AI

    To truly take advantage, government must retool both its data and its infrastructure.

  • Cybersecurity
    secure network (bluebay/

    Federal CISO floats potential for new supply chain regs

    The federal government's top IT security chief and canvassed industry for feedback on how to shape new rules of the road for federal acquisition and procurement.

  • People
    DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, shown here at her Nov. 8, 2017, confirmation hearing. DHS Photo by Jetta Disco

    DHS chief Nielsen resigns

    Kirstjen Nielsen, the first Homeland Security secretary with a background in cybersecurity, is being replaced on an acting basis by the Customs and Border Protection chief. Her last day is April 10.

Stay Connected


Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.