Cloud computing gains traction with government customers

A guide to answering customers' questions about cloud computing as a new way to manage infrastructure.

Cloud computing got a big boost when President Barack Obama endorsed the technology in his fiscal 2010 budget request. The document highlights the benefits of cloud computing and directs agencies to launch pilot projects to test the new approach.

Cloud computing allows users to access applications, data storage and processing power via the Internet for a fee while a third-party service provider shoulders the cost of building and maintaining the necessary infrastructure.

The support in the budget request, plus Obama’s choice of cloud computing proponent Vivek Kundra as the federal chief information officer, has many experts saying the technology is poised for adoption at levels never seen before, though several issues still need to be resolved.

One catalyst for the emerging technology is the need to secure government data. Cloud computing can deliver better security because data always resides on protected servers, not on devices that can be lost, such as laptop computers.

However, that approach poses some problems for government customers. For example, an intelligence agency would not want Google to host its e-mail service at an unknown server farm in the Pacific Northwest.

Therefore, government agencies might turn to private clouds that they build and control themselves, rather than rely on publicly available resources. Some experts say private clouds offer the same benefits as the public version, while others say a public cloud is the only way to enjoy the technology’s economies of scale.

Washington Technology spoke to several industry experts about Obama’s endorsement of cloud computing and the technology’s future in the federal government.

Is Obama’s support a big deal or not?

Several academic and industry sources say the administration's support is important because it gives clear direction from the top that federal agencies should pursue cloud computing technology.

Obama administration officials have voiced their desire for the government to adopt emerging technologies, but this is the first time they have enshrined the concept in budgetary documents.

“In many ways, agencies have been waiting for this type of formal announcement to move forward with pilot projects, as this plan suggests,” said Susie Adams, chief technology officer at Microsoft Federal.

What security issues do government agencies face with cloud computing?

In the public cloud model, third parties own and operate the computer infrastructure, so agencies would need to ensure that providers meet government security mandates, such as those specified in the Federal Information Security Management Act.

In a more likely scenario, an agency or a coalition of agencies would operate a private cloud in which certain data or services were kept behind government firewalls.

“In these hybrid models, customer databases can still reside inside the firewall so the crown jewels never leave the castle,” said Steve Picot, regional manager of Cisco Systems' federal data center team.

Agencies could augment the private cloud model by using software as a service so that processing or collaboration functions exist externally.

Whether agencies select a public or private cloud, the technology will change the traditional security boundaries and further remove users from applications and data, said Robert Ames, director and deputy CTO at IBM Federal. Emerging security models will make the cloud more feasible for government customers, he added.

“The perimeter now has far too many holes,” he said. “We see a future model with security baked in at every layer of the stack, from the physical hardware up through the hypervisor, the operating systems, the applications, the Web services and so on. With this layered approach, security models can be flexible, more resilient and very powerful.”

Government agencies likely will adopt the private cloud model because of the security and compliance issues that exist with a public cloud, said Randal Bryant, a professor and dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science. Government operations are big enough that its private cloud would have the same economies of scale found with a public cloud, he added.

However, others think the problems are overstated and that agencies’ experience and market competition will ensure cloud computing’s security.

“I often hear concerns about security being raised, particularly in the context of public clouds such as Amazon, but those naysayers must understand that it’s in the cloud providers’ best interest to ensure that their infrastructure is secure,” said Luis Sala, product evangelist and technical director for strategic alliances at Alfresco Software. “Federal agencies can define and request that the infrastructure be audited and certified to comply with their requirements…. In short, I think this is a minor issue with known solutions.”

Is now the right time to push for the technology?

Several industry experts think so because cloud computing works well with ongoing data center consolidation and virtualization projects. Although those efforts reduce costs, agencies need more ways to cut infrastructure spending, and cloud computing fits the bill, said David Mihalchik, manager of Google’s federal business development team.

But agencies will need to proceed cautiously. “I foresee that only a small fraction of critical government [information technology] will take place on the public cloud initially, and the ones that do will be highly secured for Internet-scale attacks and have significant legal ramifications should the cloud provider violate any agreements,” said Adam Vincent, Layer 7 Technologies’ public-sector CTO.

What are the ramifications for procurement practices?

With cloud computing, agencies buy services, not infrastructure. Therefore, capital expenses would drop, but recurring costs would rise. That will require agencies to change how they do business, said Bill Vass, president and chief operating officer of Sun Microsystems Federal.

“Procurement processes need to become more agile and must foster the ability for different parts of the government to share IT costs,” he added.

Initially, competition might suffer as an unintended consequence of moving to a cloud infrastructure, said John George, senior vice president and CIO at Vangent, an information management company.

Today, agencies can use different vendors’ hardware platforms. “With cloud computing, the standards don’t exist to support a similar type of move,” he said. “Contracting officers will need to specify a set of rigorous standards that will allow the government to take full advantage of competition.”

To gain maximum benefits and power from a shared-services cloud approach, agencies will need to find new ways to budget collaboratively and define requirements and metrics for the cloud-computing models, Ames said.

“But this isn’t new,” he added. “Service-oriented architecture also had similar implications [for] acquisition processes.”

What role will cloud computing play in telework?

Cloud computing makes it easier for employees to securely access applications to do their jobs remotely, several experts said.

Unlike many remote-access technologies, cloud computing does not require special software or hardware.

“Our cloud-based service, myOneLogin, allows organizations to provide secure remote access to thousands of workers without needing to deploy any software or hardware,” said Jon Brody, vice president of marketing at TriCipher. “All users need is a browser and an Internet connection to give [them] access to all their Web applications.”

Experts agree that the cloud applications that agencies choose must encrypt communications between users and cloud-based applications to protect them from phishers and other attacks that might compromise transactions.