U.S. Government Takes a Step Toward Cloud Computing

With a new approach to technology, the federal government aims to adapt faster and at lower cost.

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Each year, the U.S. government spends approximately $80 billion on information technology, making it the largest consumer of IT in the world. But because of a drawn-out budget and approval process, which often takes as long as three years—an eon in the tech world—federal agencies lag far behind the private sector when it comes to IT. "Steve Jobs gets an iPhone; we get a budget," says Jeffrey Zients, deputy director and chief performance officer at the Office of Management and Budget, referring to the time it took the Apple chief executive to develop his product. "That's not an acceptable trade." [See which federal agencies pay their employees the most.]

Realizing the potential loss of productivity among federal workers due to outdated equipment, White House officials, including Zients, recently announced a new round of structural reforms for IT acquisition and implementation. Among them is a "cloud-first policy," which directs federal agencies to choose "cloud-computing" options when feasible. Officials say they hope the policy, which takes effect in April, will encourage a leap forward for federal agencies and give them a chance to finally get their money's worth from the ever-expanding technology industry. "The promise of cloud is it's going to enable us, for example, to implement technologies at a lower cost, much faster, and where you don't have to turn every single technology implementation into a multibillion-dollar custom project," says Vivek Kundra, the federal chief information officer.

Based almost entirely on the Internet, cloud computing offers users on-demand access to a network of shared resources, such as files or software programs. To understand how cloud computing works, Kundra suggests comparing today's compartmentalized government IT systems to a time when each village or household had its own water well. With cloud computing, he argues, federal IT would function more like the shared public utilities model, in which services operate on a high-capacity network, can easily be turned on or off, are monitored by a specialized team of professionals, and are not billed unless they're used. The OMB says that by increasing the adoption of cloud solutions, the government could consolidate its more than 2,000 data centers (i.e., water wells) nationwide by up to 40 percent by 2015. Starting with the 2012 budget process, the reform will make cloud-computing options the default when agencies shop for technology solutions. [See which agencies pay their employees the least.]

Critics of cloud computing most often cite Web security issues as their top concern. However, the federal government has taken steps to ensure that its information remains safe and accessible, officials say. For example, cloud-computing vendors will have to earn security certification before agencies may consider them. Also, Kundra says, any information that is sensitive or vital to national security will be housed within government-owned-and-operated systems. And last week Kundra announced that the administration will finalize a proposal within six months for the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, or FedRAMP, which will authorize additional security monitoring services for cloud-computing systems.

Vendors have responded to the federal cloud-computing initiative by re-engineering well-known private sector applications, like those for search, E-mail, and real-time file sharing, for use on a secure and specialized .gov platform. As the government begins to adopt these cloud services, officials say, it can save money on both technology infrastructure and the energy required to operate on-site systems. Likewise, the cloud applications offer federal workers easier ways to collaborate with other agencies on projects.

Another benefit of cloud computing is that it offers the federal government the chance to catch up to the private sector and some state and local governments that have already moved to the cloud. Since cloud computing doesn't require many, if any, new machines or personnel, a switch would be almost instantaneous. "The government has an opportunity to have a late-mover advantage," said David Mihalchik, a top business development executive for Google Federal. "The government has been behind in information technology, but cloud computing actually offers an almost immediate way for the government to become up to date.