Want to save money? Clear up cloud confusion early.

Agencies are expected to increase spending on cloud computing, but should be careful to define expectations and negotiate terms of service carefully to avoid difficulties, experts advise.

Mark Cohn, Unisys

Clear up confusion over cloud before signing a contract, advises Unisys's Mark Cohn.

Like its atmospheric namesake, “the cloud” is a shifting, vaporous concept with no permanent shape. The term means different things to different people, and definitions vary in the federal space between marketers, vendors, service providers and agencies as customers.

Inevitably, these differences in definition produce miscommunication and confusion for agency executives looking to adhere to cloud-first policies with shrinking IT budgets, said Mark Cohn, chief technology officer of Unisys Federal Systems.

Clearing up cloud confusion will be a key for agencies looking to do more – or at least provide services on par with what they already have – for less money in the coming year, Cohn said.

“It’s not that cloud is a bad thing, it’s just that it is a confusing term. It’s often used as a marketing term,” Cohn said. “Customers aren’t always sure what aspect or type of cloud service they need and what they will get from a provider.”

When customers and providers don’t speak the same language on cloud, problems can arise, and they begin the moment an agency signs over an end user license agreement based on terms of service that may not be beneficial to the agency.

While some cloud services are marketed like desktop computers – a buyer signs an end-user license agreement and assumes certain risks inherent to using the product – Cohn said that isn’t a good strategy for the government to adhere to.

If something undesired occurs, such as a costly data breach or failure to meet mission standards, it’s important to know if the terms of service from the commercial provider align with what the government would have expected, he said. 

And who shells out the money to remedy such problems?

“That’s the kind of questions people deal with,” Cohn said, “We’re seeing that struggle to implement stronger service agreements.”

Some federal officials have expressed uncertainty with regards to actual savings reaped through movement of data and applications to the cloud, and what happens if a cloud deal goes sour.

“If you go into the cloud, how easy is it to get out of it?” asked Dr. Paul Tibbits, speaking at 1105 Media’s Enterprise Architecture Conference on Nov. 29. Tibbits is the Department of Veteran Affairs’ Deputy CIO for Architecture, Strategy and Design.

Though the VA recently signed a $36 million deal to migrate its e-mail and calendar services to the cloud for 600,000 users, Tibbits said “it is not 100 percent clear that expenses go down if we jump into the cloud.”

If it becomes clear that a cloud contract for an agency just isn’t working out, how bad is the resulting fallout?

“That’s an important question to ask,” Cohn said, “and if an agency doesn’t have that answer, it better be careful.”

“The government normally reserves the right to terminate a contract for convenience or default, but if you terminate for convenience, you may have to bear the cost of migration away from it, and there may substantial economic consequences,” Cohn said. “Migrating to a different e-mail with different user interface could be a six-month effort, and you’re looking at probably a year of impact on the operations’ side. It could be a nightmare that costs an executive his job.”

To avoid these scenarios, Cohn said he expects more agencies to turn to cloud brokers to navigate confusion as they shift to cloud-first strategies.

Cloud brokers, he said, could provide agencies a means of evaluating and quantifying cloud vendor capabilities accurately, while possibly cutting up-front costs and shifting some risk to a contractor.

“What we see is a need for someone in the middle who can help overcome the gap between customer’s needs and a platform service provider’s ability to perform a service,” Cohn said.

The gap between how the government and vendors view the cloud may be closing already.

Khalid Kark, an analyst at Forrester Research, Inc., said he expects federal agencies to spend big on cloud in the coming year, but said he foresees changes in how agencies will deal with vendors.

In the past, agencies haven’t been as picky, patient or meticulous in acquiring cloud services as their private sector counterparts have been, but Kark said agencies are beginning to view the cloud as vendors do. 

“2013 is going to be a peak of investment in the cloud, and we’re going to see a huge maturation process in how the federal government uses those investments,” Kark said. “They will be able to deal with vendors in a different mindset.”

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