For agencies, cloud's future lies between hype and reality

The technology is there and security is rapidly improving, but agencies now must decide if they're ready for the dramatic changes cloud computing can bring.

Federal agencies are already in the cloud, and some of them have been for years. Greg Gianforte, chief executive officer of cloud provider RightNow, pointed out as part of his keynote address at a breakfast event today in Washington D.C.

“A lot of the discussion today is about the future,” he said. “But we have a lot of people who have been doing this a long time.”

Agencies are "doing this" at a variety of levels. Some have tentatively adopted software-as-a-service offerings while others have plunged in more deeply. But as the family of technologies collectively referred to as cloud computing continue to mature and expand, agencies face a choice between trying to pick up some efficiencies here and there, and radically re-thinking their business models.

First, though, the challenge for federal chief information officers is to sort the cloud hype from the reality.

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“We’re sort of bracing ourselves” for the inevitable disappointment when hype doesn’t pan out," said Henry Sienkiewicz, technical program director of computing services at the Defense Information Systems Agency. “Quite frankly, there will be some things that won’t go into the cloud.” He described the sometimes inflated claims of vendors as “hype as a service."

However, he added, many things can and will become part of the cloud. Agency information technology managers need to think of cloud computing as changing four primary things about IT:

  • The acquisition model changes from purchasing hardware to buying services.
  • The access model changes so that information travels over the network to any device authorized users want to use.
  • The technical model becomes much more scalable, elastic and shareable.
  • The business model shifts from capital costs to payment for use.

The future of cloud computing depends to an extent on how well providers implement necessary security features into their offerings, he said. “We are in continuous and deep engagement with most of the major networking companies,” he said.

" 'Cloud’ has more that one meaning,” said Daniel Mintz, who until recently was the CIO at the Transportation Department. “It means different things to different people.”

Mintz, who left Transportation at the end of the George W. Bush administration and became chief operating officer at Powertek Corp., spoke as part of a panel discussion.

To Mintz, cloud computing done right will change many things about the government’s operation. It’s more than just server virtualization, he said.

“That’s just a technical issue. What’s going on here is a more complicated issue – how is the government going to change its relationship to the stakeholder? That requires the government to start thinking about what services it really provides.”

Meanwhile, progressive managers trying to implement cloud computing still face resistance. While at Transportation, Mintz helped convince colleagues to take the risk of moving some operations into the cloud by pointing out how it shifts the responsibilities. “We told all the local officers that if my office ran the servers, we’d take the hit for security. But if they ran the servers, they’d take the hit,” he said.

Janice Mosher, director of the information center that fields questions and complaints for Customs and Border Protection, said she appealed to the high profile of the Homeland Security Department, the parent agency for CBP.

“My agency is resistant to the idea of [its data] being hosted elsewhere. They like being in control,” she said. But once she convinced leaders that an enemy strike against DHS’ data centers could destroy critical information, they let her move ahead with the cloud.

Eventually, Mintz said, people will want a single portal where they can get information, without having to know which agency provides it. And they’ll expect agencies to collaborate and communicate, so that if the answer to a question is split between two or more organizations, they’ll combine their efforts and provide a complete answer.

“That’s going to take a real sea change,” he said. “That’s not today’s problem, but I think it’s tomorrow’s.”

RightNow used the event to announce "Safe Switch," a program intended to encourage adoption of cloud computing through some incentives, including a promise to charge an agency the same amount it already pays in maintenance fees for the first year, enabling the agency to migrate to cloud solutions at the amount already budgeted, Gianforte said.

The Digital Government Institute produced the event.