The cloud, simplified

Gartner futurist provides advice for agencies hoping to cut through the buzzwords.

hands and cloud

In recent years, cloud computing has gone from buzzword to product-label used by virtually every IT vendor that does business with the federal government. And according to David Cearley, tech visionary and futurist at Gartner, that might not be a good thing.

"Can you think of a vendor who doesn't have something labeled 'cloud?'" Cearley asked an audience at the Federal Cloud Computing Summit on May 30.

"When cloud means everything, then cloud computing really loses its meaning," Cearley added, prefacing his 40-minute presentation. The presentation itself comprised a crash course in cloud computing for the fed-heavy audience, beginning with its definition and ending with what agencies need to think about if they want to employ it.

The definition of cloud computing

The basic definition, as provided by Gartner: "A style of computing in which scalable and elastic IT-enabled capabilities are delivered as a service using Internet technologies," Cearley said.

Cloud services can be provided in numerous ways.

Private clouds and hosted private clouds are two of the most popular options federal agencies currently favor, in part because they address the most serious security concerns that some agencies – especially those dealing with sensitive information – routinely voice.

Public cloud services, often used by agencies to stand up public-facing websites, are growing more popular, especially within agencies that have adopted cloud technology and are "ready to add security layers in." Agencies currently spend less on public cloud computing solutions than they do on any other option.

However, studies by Gartner show that federal agencies are beginning to shift their strategies toward hybrid cloud solutions, which are essentially combinations of private and public cloud infrastructure. Cearley, referring to a recent Gartner study, said 70 percent of feds report they will pursue a hybrid cloud strategy in the near future.

"Hybrid cloud aspirations are sky-high, hybrid needs to be on your list of topics when you're thinking about cloud computing," Cearley said.

How to decide what's best for your agency

Cearley said one of the biggest mistakes feds make in looking to the cloud is assuming too much, so he outlined a process agencies can follow to ensure they end up with the right cloud option.

  •   Decide where and how you want to consume cloud services, and how you want to buy them.
  •  Secure, manage and govern across a hybrid environment. "Start with the assumption that you'll be using all these cloud services, and challenge your security teams that we need processes in place that give us options," Cearley said.
  •  Determine how cloud computing factors into application strategy and architecture.
  •   Determine whether there are opportunities for your agency to be a cloud computing service provider. "When you look at what you provide to the world, you want to be thinking about what gets delivered using attributes of cloud computing," Cearley added.

Cearley said cost is always a factor when moving to the cloud, but he recommended agencies develop mechanisms to determine cost over time. Cearley warned not to "just assume cloud is cheaper" because in some cases, it might not be, but moving to cloud-based services might still be the right decision if increased agility is taken into account.

Security, too, is an important determinant for whether an agency might take or leave a cloud solution, but Cearley said too often "when people raise security, it's usually about their job security."

"Sometimes, they will be absolutely right, but look at security as a challenge to be addressed and evaluate it, not as a reason to not do anything," Cearley said.

Lastly, if you're in an IT shop putting together a cloud-based plan for your agency, Cearley said it is best to keep it simple. "Put the framework in a model that non-IT people can understand," he said.

Cearley recommended a simple "benefits vs. challenges" model, which works great with data-driven figures to bolster the argument. It also doubles as a rubric for what kind of cloud model best suits an agency's particular need.

When the benefits and challenges are both high, a private cloud – best for sensitive information – probably applies best. When the benefits are high and the challenges are low, Cearley said, that's a great time to try public cloud solutions.

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