Federal Government IT Heads for the Clouds

White House and Cloud Computing

The Obama administration today unveiled a sweeping cloud-computing initiative, pledging to remake federal IT operations in the model of the private sector by replacing expensive and often redundant infrastructure with more efficient, Internet-enabled systems to cut costs and lower energy consumption.

Vivek Kundra, the federal government’s first CIO, made the announcement at a press conference at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, a fitting setting for a discussion themed around bringing technical innovation to the federal government.

Kundra praised Ames for its own cloud-computing initiative, called Nebula, a project he held up as a model for “the government to be able to leverage some of the most innovative technologies in a very lightweight footprint.”

Of the $76 billion in IT expenditures in the federal budget, more than $19 billion is allocated to infrastructure costs, Kundra said. But each agency typically maintains its own data centers and server farms, rather than the distributed cloud model where machines in one facility can simultaneously perform computing tasks for end users scattered far and wide.

The result is hundreds of independent federal data centers spread around the country, which Kundra said are generally used at a fraction of their capability while carrying substantial carbon footprints.

“A lot of this infrastructure is built on the old computing model,” he said. “Essentially what we’re doing is building datacenters the size of city blocks.”

He added, “If we think about the investments we’re making unfortunately what happens is more money goes to infrastructure than goes to solving problems.”

As part of the new cloud initiative, the General Services Administration today launched the Web site Apps.gov, an online catalog where federal IT managers and CIOs can browse applications developed by companies like Amazon, Salesforce.com and other cloud players.

Kundra said that GSA will continue to oversee the procurement process to ensure that all vendors have a fair shake.

“We want to make sure that competition is live and healthy in this space,” he said.

At the same time, Kundra acknowledged that the federal government’s byzantine procurement rules are in dire need of reform, and said he is working to centralize the certification standards across the agencies to streamline the process.

“Across the broad what we want to be able to do is make sure we make it easy for the industry … to get onto the storefront on Apps.gov,” he said.

Since his appointment in February, Kundra has been a consistent and emphatic advocate of the need for government agencies to deploy the same lightweight (and often free) technologies that have transformed the consumer-facing IT sector.

Today, he reiterated that point with what has become a characteristic mixture of enthusiasm and bewilderment at the inefficiencies of the federal IT apparatus, at one point rhetorically asking his audience: “Why should the government pay and build infrastructure that may be available for free?”

He said that GSA has been negotiating terms of service with several Web 2.0 vendors that will facilitate government-wide deployment of more social and collaborative tools hosted by firms in the private sector.

“In these tough economic times, the federal government must buy smarter,” he said.

He said that the president’s budget for fiscal 2010 will place a strong emphasis on cloud technologies, and that the 2011 budget will contain specific directives for the agencies.

But not all government data is suited to the cloud. Kundra said that security concerns about sensitive information are a major reason why the federal government has maintain its siloed IT model, stressing the need to “differentiate” among the different types of government data when mulling the migration to the cloud.

“We recognize that there are systems that the government must run, own and operate that infrastructure because they’re sensitive,” he said. “There are legitimate concerns around security.”

In the nuanced approach Kundra outlined, national security information and other classified data would continue to be housed in federal data centers, while other sensitive but not top-secret data could reside in secure cloud-based systems.

“We want to make sure that industry rises to the occasion,” Kundra said, calling on IT vendors to develop products and applications with “security baked in.”

“What we want to make sure from a policy perspective is that security is front and center as we look at these products,” he said.

To underscore his point about shifting away from the siloed IT model to focus more on using IT to solve problems, Kundra described a recent effort at the Department of Education to simplify the process of filing the online application for financial aid for college, which he said was more complicated than the instructions for filling out an income tax return.

The result was a collaboration with the Internal Revenue Service that pulls in information from an individual’s 1040 form to automatically populate the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application. That sync-up eliminated about 70 questions and 20 screens from the application on the Department of Education’s Web site.

“That’s what CIOs should be focusing on,” Kundra said.

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