Sunny days ahead for cloud?

The federal budget and CIO Vivek Kundra put some money behind cloud efforts. Will it work to increase the adoption of the technology?

Is cloud computing’s sunny day in the short-range forecast?

With the release of the Obama administration’s budget request for fiscal 2012, it certainly seems like it might be. In addition to cutting funds for various programs, the White House plans to devote 25 percent of the IT budget — about $20 billion a year — to cloud computing. At about the same time the administration released the budget, federal CIO Vivek Kundra issued the administration’s cloud strategy.

Cloud computing has been slow to gain traction in the government, despite an array of offerings from vendors and a growing list of success stories. Agency managers are reluctant to relinquish control to outside IT service providers, and in some cases, there are real and significant security problems to deal with.

But with the administration advocating the technology and channeling significant funding to it, the tide could begin to turn rapidly. Cloud computing, at least according to conventional wisdom, is a net money saver. By outsourcing the tasks of IT management to commercial providers, agencies don’t need to hire employees for that purpose or maintain data centers and server infrastructure.

Writing at CNN.com, Kundra said, “This is why we instituted a cloud-first policy that directs each federal agency to move three technology services (such as e-mail) to the cloud within the next 18 months. We're already seeing results. The Department of Agriculture is migrating 120,000 e-mail users across 5,000 locations to the cloud, saving $27 million over five years. Overall, based on our estimates, up to $20 billion of annual federal IT spending could potentially be migrated to cloud computing solutions.”

JP Morgenthal, writing at Sys-Con.com, analyzed the strategy this way: “In no uncertain terms, this strategy is focused primarily on one key factor: deliver more value for the same dollars spent. Semantically, to me, this is a very different statement than establishing this strategy around lowering IT costs.”

Morgenthal found the plan to be pretty ingenious. “Depending upon which pundit/analyst you follow or hear talk, you may hear a different list of benefits from cloud computing,” he wrote. “Certainly, the list of benefits should be different for public and private sectors, and within public sectors, each agent has its own mission, adding even more variance into the list of benefits. However, this document transcends those variances in a way that allows all agents to participate while limiting overall objections. Hence, this document, if nothing else, accomplishes a monumental feat of delivering some practical vision while limiting the opportunity for the ideas and concepts to easily be dismissed.”

However, the plan has its skeptics. Ron Knode, director of global security solutions at Computer Sciences Corp., wrote in a blog post at Mitre.org that cloud computing works well only when expectations for users and providers are realistic.

“Continuing ambiguity about overall risk governance and accountability, a monitoring framework that excludes the cloud consumer, and a complicated scheme for trying to shape [the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s] Spec Pub 800-53 for cloud services all present high hurdles to overcome,” Knode wrote. “One cannot but wonder if the biblical admonition against ‘pouring new wine into old wineskins’ must be observed here. Trying to bend the conventional machinery for [certification and accreditation] into a community process for ‘A&A’ [assessment and authorization] without clarifying who is accountable for risk acceptance in cloud services only slows cloud adoption.”

Meanwhile, Microsoft’s Larry Grothaus, blogging at Forbes, found much of the cloud-first strategy laudable.

Grothaus wrote: “I really loved a line from the conclusion of this paper as it relates to cloud computing: ‘To paraphrase Sir Arthur Eddington — the physicist who confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity — cloud computing will not just be more innovative than we imagine; it will be more innovative than we can imagine.’ ”

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