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Federal market slowly ramps up cloud computing adoption

U.S. federal agencies have been slow to adopt cloud due to security concerns, budget constraints and other factors. But that might change soon.

While cloud computing adoption increases in a number of markets, others remain sluggish. In February 2011, former federal CIO Vivek Kundra initiated the Federal Cloud Computing Strategy, also known as "Cloud First." The program required federal agencies to evaluate cloud services when making new IT investments. However, tight IT budgets and security concerns have slowed the program's progress.

The Cloud First program complements another effort by the Obama administration to revamp data center systems within federal agencies. Called the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative, the goal is to shutter at least 1,000 facilities by the end of 2015. Through accumulated savings in energy, infrastructure and associated data centers costs, the federal government expects to trim billions of dollars from its IT budget.

Cloud fits nicely with these cost-cutting efforts, as self-service functions accelerate the provisioning of IT services. Agency IT teams, as a result, can spend less time allocating system resources, which improves efficiency and cuts costs.

However, it seems that Cloud First strategy became more like "Cloud Later." Fewer than 5% of federal agency applications are now cloud-based, according to Adelaide O'Brien, research director, Smart Government Strategies at IDC.

What's more, only one of 20 cloud migration plans submitted by agencies to the Government Accountability Office for approval in 2012 was completed, according to research from Accenture. The feds' path to cloud has been bumpy, as they have run into a number of challenges.

Buckle up: Feds' path to cloud a bumpy ride

First, federal requirements are different than those in the enterprise, demanding special services and processes. Cloud vendors focus on the horizontal market, so many are unable to deliver the mandated government agency functions.

For example, federal contracting is a complex process overseen by numerous agencies. Therefore, contracts must be rewritten for new technology. In many cases, federal contracts contain hundreds of pages and require lengthy reviews to ensure compliance.

Experience -- or lack thereof -- is another factor. Many agencies lack the necessary skills to deploy cloud applications. Additionally, it's difficult to gain these critical skills. Cloud requires virtualization and cloud API expertise, so many agencies are generally more comfortable with on-premises systems than cloud.

What's more, federal government IT spending will remain flat in 2015, according to O'Brien. As a result, agencies could spend less on training.

Security is another hurdle in federal cloud adoption. Like the healthcare and financial services industries, federal agencies need to ensure confidential information is secure. For example, classified military networks require ultra-sophisticated network security. Meanwhile, the recent Snowden breach and alleged cyberspying by North Korea could make federal agencies even more wary of cloud.

However, change is coming. Cloud providers such as Amazon Web Services and IBM are developing technology that will quell some of the government's cloud security concerns. Consequently, cloud usage is expected to rise -- just not as quickly as the Cloud First initiative had hoped.

About the author:
Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer who specializes in cloud computing issues. Based in Sudbury, Mass., Korzeniowski has been covering technology issues for more than two decades and can be reached at [email protected].

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