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Federal government inches into the cloud

Despite a lack of standards and clear understanding around cloud, the biggest IT buyer in the world is getting hooked little by little.

Despite widespread suspicion and a hazy understanding of exactly what officially constitutes "cloud computing", many federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, are tinkering with various kinds of distributed computing. Proponents said that economic and technological pressures make the shift into cloud inevitable.

At the Cloud Computing Symposium, hosted on June 15 at the National Defense University in Washington DC, new Federal CIO Vivek Kundra announced he was creating an "online store" to give federal agencies and employees access to different types of on-demand computing services, from computing power to services and development platforms. The service was reportedly to be available by July 31, but Kundra did not give a firm launch date.

"It's unacceptable that it takes us a year to roll out solutions you can roll out in your personal life in minutes," he said, pointing to online services like Gmail's email service and Amazon's EC2 server instances. Kundra said he was determined to change the lengthy federal procurement process to speed up the pace of technology in the government and save money.

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John Garing, CIO of the Defense Information Systems Agency, also speaking at the conference, pointed to his agency's project. is an online service where US service personnel can log in, request and receive instant access to computing power for software development, closely mirroring Amazon Web Services public cloud products. Garing said that had two clear advantages that made it a good model for government cloud computing. The first was security.

"We have 1800 users right now," he said, who can trust the platform because even though it is accessed remotely, the Department of Defense owns the infrastructure and controls security. Garing said, as did many others throughout the day, that privacy and security were the first consideration for any federal agency looking at cloud technologies. However, he said, there was nothing to stop agencies from creating their own clouds for their own users as DISA (part of the DoD) had done.

The second advantage, according to Garing, was that enabled personnel to short circuit the DoD procurement process, which he called cumbersome and expensive. Instead of filing paper requisition forms through a long chain of departments to receive a server or software, users could use with the permission of a supervisor, truncating the procurement process and speeding up software projects.

Murmurs of surprise swept the conference at Garing's words. Mike Nelson, Georgetown University professor and conference attendee was taken aback by Garing's description of a breakneck pace in deployment by government standards. He said that while the military was a special case in this regard, this kind of advantage could drive cloud usage. He said it reminds him of previous groundswells in technology.

"Fifteen years ago, [federal agencies] were just at the cusp of adopting the web, partly because it took three years to buy a PC." he said. The maze of regulations and certifications necessary made it a hellish process. Meanwhile the internet revolution was already well under way in 1996 in the private sector. Nelson said that cloud computing was in a similar position, as strict data security laws like the 2002 Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) set a high bar for cloud providers like Amazon and Google.

Nelson said the standards the US adopts for cloud will shape the industry since the government has enormous buying power. The Office of Management and Budget puts total IT spending for 2009 at $74.6 billion for 2009, with more than half of that in new technology investment.

"In 1986-1988, the US Government made a decision to go with TCP/IP [as a standard network protocol]" and the result was the internet, said Nelson, who lectures on technology policy for Georgetown University. "It's really like the birth of the web. We have key standards (not all of which have been full adopted) we have the technology, we have security concerns but there's no question it's going to happen," he said. And where ever the massive buying power of the US government leads, industry will follow.

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