Hope for the Federal Cloud?

WASHINGTON — On the technology front, one of the more ambitious undertakings of the Obama administration has been the promise to migrate the federal government’s sprawling computing infrastructure to the cloud.

Here at the AlwaysOn DC conference, a panel of private-sector technologists knee-deep in the effort praised the administration for its effort while also noting how daunting the challenge will be.

“I’m impressed by the fact that the federal government is actually acting as the thought leader,” said Bruce Hart, COO of the federal group with Terremark Worldwide, a former deputy director for science and technology at the CIA. “I think it’s going to generate significant economic efficiencies, and as a taxpayer I appreciate that.”

Last month, Federal CIO Vivek Kundra announced a sweeping cloud computing initiative that aims to cut costs and eliminate inefficiencies in the federal IT operations.

That effort includes a new Web site, Apps.gov, that serves as a catalog of private-sector cloud products for federal IT managers.

But bringing the federal government into the cloud era is no simple task. In part, the sheer volume of the computing infrastructure and data involved make it a daunting task. But government data isn’t monolithic, and the panelists described considerable reluctance on the part of federal IT managers when it came to putting information online that could pose a threat to citizens’ privacy.

“Once you get into social security numbers or anything sensitive, it gets very difficult,” said Blaine Hall, executive vice president of Three Pillars Software. “Most of our experience is working with DoD, and I would say that there’s great hesitation on their part on moving to the cloud.”

In agreement was Daniel Burton, Salesforce.com’s senior vice president of global public policy, who noted that his company, which has been at the forefront of the cloud revolution in the private sector, has to pick its spots when dealing with the feds.

“NSA is not going to put all of its intelligence into the cloud,” Burton said. “That’s certainly not a business Salesforce is going to go after.”

Burton and some of the other panelists also noted the cultural resistance from some corners of the government that has greeted the push to the cloud. “They will suffer terrible slings and arrows from lots of incumbents in Washington,” he said.

Nevertheless, with a White House mandate, the cloud seems to be the future of federal government, both for the increased efficiency the model offers, and the significant cost savings.

“Not just federal but state and local governments are embracing the cloud out of necessity,” said Seth Finkel, general manager of the federal division with Carpathia Hosting. “Computing infrastructure is a highly visible part of their budgets.”

But the security concerns remain, though the panelists, as one might expect from cloud-computing merchants, suggested that cloud environments are generally far more secure than popular perception, which can be unduly influenced by the rare instance of a high-profile breach.

Of course, the federal government is hardly a new player to the cloud environment. For more than a decade, .gov sites have broadcast information to the public, which, by the common definition, lives in the cloud.

Many of those sites, particularly those maintained by the General Services Administration, are already providing a solid test bed for the government’s cloud experiment, according to Dave McQueeney, CTO of IBM’s federal division.

“What better place to avoid a security problem than with a site that’s whole purpose is to push information to the public,” McQueeney said.

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