Need precedes the deed of moving to the cloud

NOAA's use of cloud computing for the National Weather Service's Web site could be a model for other agencies.

As parts of the nation were hammered by massive snow storms in February, hits on the National Weather Service’s Web site reached about 2 billion — twice the previous record for a serious weather event.

Despite that unprecedented traffic, the site never crashed. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which runs Weather.gov, was able to tap into private computer networks to handle the increased demand.

This episode perfectly encapsulates the federal government's use case for cloud computing: It is elastic, which allowed NOAA to tap into resources when needed and then scale things back when the crisis subsided. And the way NOAA started using cloud computing — when wide public engagement suddenly became paramount — should serve as a model for other agencies as they discover their own needs for external computing services.

In other words, the cloud revolution will probably take place as an intermittent evolution, spurred in fits and starts by opportunity and necessity.

What's more, it will be Government 2.0 that forces the issue. The push for agencies to use social networking and be more transparent is designed to get more information to the public, which greatly reduces the security concerns that most worry cloud skeptics. The need to get information to the public quickly and efficiently is what made it a no-brainer for NOAA to turn to the cloud.

“The Weather Service is obviously interested in security from a standpoint of protecting the integrity of the data," said Robert Bunge, an Internet dissemination officer at NOAA. "But our core mission is to push the data out just as much and as fast as we can.”

During most of the year, the Weather Service runs its Web site on NOAA-owned servers. But when big weather events occur, the agency taps resources from private contractors, such as Mirror Image, a content delivery network. Mirror Image hosted the Weather Service’s radar displays from Feb. 5 to Feb. 12 as snow storms pummeled the East Coast and South.

Similarly, other federal agencies have turned to cloud computing via social media to quickly communicate during times of crisis. In several of these instances, the cloud was a by-now familiar name.

“Facebook was a key component of response efforts by government agencies and relief organizations immediately following the Haiti and Chile earthquakes,” said Andrew Noyes, a spokesman for the social networking site that has nearly 400 million members.

And as open-government efforts continue to expand within the federal government, cloud computing is sure to play a major role. Chris Kemp, NASA Ames Research Center’s chief information officer, said cloud computing will likely serve as the principal enabler of open-government and Gov 2.0 efforts.

“As we begin to open up our data, it will be difficult to predict what information will be most popular,” Kemp said. “If the data is highly dynamic and very popular, the low cost and elasticity of the cloud may be the only way we will be able to afford to serve up the data. On the other hand, if the data doesn’t get mashed up on everyone’s favorite new Web site, zero investment in infrastructure is a wonderful thing.”

Reducing Complexity

Although agencies will turn to cloud computing when it makes sense, the transition will have challenges. Cloud computing is a classic disruptive technology that has the potential of enabling unexpected breakthroughs.

As with any disruptive innovation, Kemp said, the entire ecosystem — in this case, federal IT policy, the procurement framework and agencies' culture — must adapt to the new values required to support the principles of cloud computing before the majority of federal agencies can benefit.

Many of the fundamentals remain the same, but with at least one notable exception. Previous technological evolutions became more difficult because of the growing complexity of software, infrastructure and policy frameworks. The cloud evolution, on the other hand, aims to reduce that complexity so agencies can focus on using software to solve problems instead of solving problems so that they can use software.

But if the hype machine seems to be pushing agencies to get into cloud computing just because it's there, that’s probably not the way the technology will be adopted. The need precedes the deed.

“People have come to me over the last year or so and said, ‘We need to be in the cloud, we need to be in the cloud,’" NOAA's Bunge said. "It is a 'Dilbert' moment for me because, well, we first started using the cloud before Hurricane Isabel in 2003."

The Weather Service, in this instance, found its particular use case long ago. “For delivering applications, it is more revolutionary," Bunge allowed. "But for Web dissemination, it’s been used by federal agencies for a number of years.”

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