Cloud computing disarms State Department's worries over fast system deployment
Cloud computing offers a tantalizing promise of savings. But how can an agency test new cloud-based services without compromising the mission? The State Department might have found a new technique: Test cloud services with workgroup-portioned projects.
As director of State's Nonproliferation and Disarmament Fund, Steven Saboe found himself between two sets of competing demands. His office is in charge of helping countries clean up their nuclear weapons programs after they reach a disarmament agreement with the United Nations or United States. His staff will work on location with countries that might not be friendly to U.S. interests, such as Libya or North Korea, Saboe said at the recent Virtualization, Cloud Computing and Green IT summit in Washington, sponsored by the 1105 Government Information Group, which also publishes GCN.
On one hand, his staff required up-to-date licensing, tracking and financial information from the field. On the other hand, his staff in the field would have access to the department's system of record, which ran on CGI's Momentum Financials. Setting up a secure gateway for access from potentially hostile locations would take months, if not years. He noted that when his staff was in North Korea, the Internet service provider they had to use was run by the North Korean Secret Police.
The answer came from cloud computing, which allowed State to set up a system with relative ease and deliver the required data, while remaining outside the department's firewalls.
"We're running my operation, in terms of its financial base, on cloud computing," Saboe said.
The development team set up a $50,000 pilot project with Salesforce.com, which offered the basic reporting tools needed for the system. Although Salesforce offers a wide array of out-of-the-box enterprise resource planning software modules, it still requires some customization to the government IT environment. State's setup still had some requirement gaps, so the department contracted with Acumen Solutions. The integrator modified the Salesforce offering for government use by customizing the software and helping the department meet government security standards.
"Having been a commercial company, Salesforce did not design their data centers and systems to government specs," said Greg Sanders, who leads Acumen's public-sector work. "They are now adjusting to the government requirements." Acumen helped State's nonproliferation office customize the Salesforce Modules for its financial reporting needs.
The company also developed a backup system. "We establish a process where the backup files are backed up local for the client," Sanders said. "We give them the [entity relational diagram] and the data dictionary. The files are all stored as comma-separated values files, and the ERD shows them how to put it all back together again if they want to drop it into a relational database."
The work has not been without its challenges, Saboe said. For instance, the system needed to draw data from State's global financial management system, a bridge that took a year to set up. Getting information to the financial management system from the Salesforce implementation, a more difficult task, could take three to five years, Saboe said. "It has to go through all the validation schemes."
Nonetheless, for State, the use of an outside cloud offering helped the agency get a reporting system up and running quickly while not compromising the security of its core system.
"For now, cloud computing is very well suited to replacing workgroup capabilities," Saboe said. "It is a very useful tool for getting jobs done rapidly."