Research Report: The Virtual Public Sector

Cloud brokers could ease acquisition burden

Could third-party “cloud brokers” ease the migration to the cloud? The jury is still out, but more and more experts are saying this acquisition approach could be just what many organizations need to become more sophisticated users of the technology.

The idea of a cloud broker is to provide an organization with a single point of contact who can give them access to cloud services from multiple sources. To date, most agencies have not needed such services, because their initial forays into the cloud typically involved one vendor, such as software-as-a-service agreement with an application provider.

But as agencies seek to migrate more of their infrastructure to the cloud —not just applications, but also servers, networks and storage —they might find it helpful to have a business partner who can pull all those pieces together for them.

It is the same model used by consumers in other fields, such as finance and insurance. The model exists “because sometimes consumers need help just navigating all the options and the complexity of the consumption,” said Benoit Lheureux, vice president of research at Gartner, speaking in a recent Gartner webcast. “Cloud services are no different.”

The Defense Department has adopted the cloud broker model in a big way. In June 2013, the department designated the Defense Information Systems Agency as its Enterprise Cloud Service Broker. That means all DOD users must go through DISA to obtain commercial cloud services for low-impact data and missions, unless they get a waiver.

As of the end of 2013, DISA has received more than 40 requests had been submitted for cloud services, with around a dozen customers matched to potential providers.

On the civilian side, the General Services Administration has been working on cloud broker pilot with several agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security.

GSA began testing the waters with a request for information about cloud brokerages in June 2012, eventually receiving 81 responses from a mix of large, mid-sized and small businesses. Just less than 80 percent of them favored the idea, with only 12 percent against it.

If the GSA pilot proves viable, GSA expects to develop a full concept for operations and a business case to support a cloud broker acquisition. Another option is for GSA itself to act as a cloud broker.

The results of that pilot have not been released, but in December, Mark Day, Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the GSA’s Integrated Technology Service, told the Federal Cloud Computing Summit in December that a cloud broker could address a “whole set of layers” of the acquisition process.

The question, he said, is which functions a broker could provide most efficiently for government —and in which cases a broker could add value and which it might just be an added cost.

Gartner’s research has found that a cloud broker makes the most sense when an organization is looking to aggregate a lot of different services, Lheureux said. In that situation, a broker can go a long way toward easing the complexity of a cloud project. Additionally, a broker might provide professional services that support a cloud procurement, such as business process management, he said.

In a report on government cloud adoption published last year, Accenture identified several ways in which a broker could simplify cloud initiatives:

  • Streamlined procurement
  • Managed customer relationships
  • Decreased procurement times
  • Standardized service delivery
  • Improved compliance and reduced risk
  • Some individual civilian agencies already have experience with cloud brokers. NASA, for example, set up a broker to provide cloud services to users across the agency.

    Meanwhile, the Department of Energy adopted a broker service created by the National Nuclear Security. YourCloud is a self-service portal through which DOE users can acquire Infrastructure-as-a-Service across a range of cloud providers.

    Still, the long-term impact of cloud brokers is open to debate. Accenture found that government employees had a wide range of ideas about what they considered the most helpful brokerage functions, from increasing operational capabilities to better management of costs and an improved ability to enforce security policies and standards across organizations.

    However, the survey also revealed that 58 percent of respondents had no idea about what cloud brokers could do for their agencies.

    Cloud brokerages show potential as an option to improving hope agencies acquire cloud services, Accenture concluded, “but their success will hinge on their ability to realize cost-reductions, streamlined procurement and improved security compliance.”