Do Federal Agencies Belong in Cloud Computing Networks?

Given the current state of the economy and the yawning federal deficit, the efficiency and cost-savings associated with cloud computing are prompting U.S. federal IT agencies to flirt with the cloud platform. Slowly, of course, since it is the government, after all.Cloud computing has become so pervasive in the enterprise that even federal agencies are moving—slowly, of course—in the direction of on-demand computing. Given the current state of the economy and the yawning federal deficit, the efficiency and cost-savings associated with cloud computing may prompt an even quicker shift to the cloud.

“In many cases, agencies are already using the Internet,” said Drew Cohen, a vice president in Booz Allen Hamilton’s Defense IT practice who is working closely with federal agencies. “The words and terms are new, but the core tools have been evolving for some time. It’s really just a maturing of things that are already going on.”

DISA (Defense Information Systems Agency), for instance, awarded contracts in 2006 for on-demand computing services. The idea was for government customers to pay for computing and storage capacity on an as-needed basis instead of having to invest in new hardware and software. Interested customers had to work through the Defense Enterprise Computing Center to develop solutions.

Taking another step toward the cloud, DISA recently introduced RACE (Rapid Access Computing Environment), in which Department of Defense users go to a Web-based portal and provision their own operating environments based on standard Department of Defense architecture. RACE contractors include Hewlett-Packard, Apptis, Sun Microsystems and Vion.

“DISA likes that model in terms of supporting their customers,” Cohen said, though noting that DISA is developing its own cloud for a number of security and privacy reasons. “Building your own cloud is whole different thing. When you build your own cloud, when does it become a cloud?”

Research in the cloud

Other, more public-facing agencies are embracing the now traditional cloud platforms offered by, Google and Microsoft. In February, Google announced it was working with NSF (National Science Foundation) and IBM to allow the academic research community to conduct experiments and test new theories and ideas using a large-scale, massively distributed computing cluster.

Jeannette Wing, the NSF assistant director for the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate, said in an open letter to the academic computing research community that the relationship would give government-funded researchers access to resources that would be unavailable to them otherwise.

According to Wing, NSF hopes the relationship will provide a blueprint for future collaborations between the academic community and private enterprise. “We welcome any comparable offers from industry that offer the same potential for transformative research outcomes,” she said.

Other agencies are also considering a move to cloud computing. After an October cloud computing seminar for government IT agencies, Cohen said more than 20 agencies approached Booz Allen for further insights on life in the cloud.

“Cloud computing gives the ability to go out and try things,” Cohen said. “The cloud offers the opportunity to unlock new ideas. A lot depends on the IT problems they are trying to solve. The rate of adoption [for cloud computing] depends on how and when they are taking up the problem.”

The U.S. government’s march to cloud computing faces steep barriers to adoption, particularly in the areas of security and privacy, but nothing insurmountable, Cohen said. “There are already vulnerabilities in our existing infrastructure that are not in the cloud,” he said. “In the cloud it is harder to exploit these known vulnerabilities.”

Government regulations are also a problem that must be addressed. FISMA (Federal Information Security Management Act), which dictates what federal IT managers can and cannot do with their data, was written before cloud computing developed. The ITAA (Information Technology Association of America) is already exploring what standards the feds might use in cloud computing.

Overall, Cohen predicted, federal agencies will take up cloud computing sooner or later. Given the slow pace of government agencies, though, “sooner” can often be much later.

Do Federal Agencies Belong in Cloud Computing Networks?.