Agencies face tough questions on how to deploy cloud computing

At summit, feds address security issues, data privacy, acquisition, standards and service level agreements

Now that agency information technology architects and other managers have become familiar with the idea of cloud computing, they have a new crop of questions concerning how the technology could be put to use, according to feedback obtained through the Federal Cloud Computing Advisory Council.

Security issues, data privacy, the acquisition process, standards and service-level agreements were among the chief issues that feds grappled with when thinking about cloud deployment, said Peter Tseronis, deputy associate chief information officer for the Energy Department, and head of the advisory council. Tseronis spoke today as part of a cloud-computing panel at the Virtualization, Cloud Computing and Green IT Summit, being held this week in Washington by the 1105 Government Information Group, publishers of GCN.

When the council was formed earlier this year, one of its first tasks was to get feedback from agency IT heads about the questions and concerns they had about cloud computing, Tseronis said. With these issues in mind, the council is establishing working groups to address each of the problems.

The extent that industry has met these concerns is varied.

In terms of security, one of the chief impediments has been government accreditation. Systems must comply with rules set for in the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) and other standards. In another session, General Services Administration Chief Information Officer Casey Coleman advised that the software-as-a-service offered on Apps.gov has not been accredited for secure government use — agencies still must qualify the software itself. One approach to keep in mind is that cost of accreditations could be shared across different agencies, especially if the service is fairly commoditized.

Agencies interested in trying cloud services should start with the public-facing applications and applications where the requirements are similar across all the agencies, with low-security restrictions, Coleman noted. Web servers, e-mail and collaboration could be possible candidates for cloud computing.

Tseronis noted that the first round of services available at Apps.gov has been SaaS, but by the end of the year, infrastructure-as-a-service should also be offered by the cloud storefront. Infrastructure as a service will be "the foundation" of the cloud-based service offerings on the site, he noted. He also added that other GSA procurement vehicles, such as the GSA Networx contract, offer cloud-like infrastructure service.

"It's not all out there," he noted. "It's a progression."

When it comes to service-levels agreements, vendors still haven't fully standardized the reporting process, said Jason Lamb, a global solutions architect for Brocade Communications Systems who also was on the panel.

With this in mind, Tseronis said, "the onus is on the agency to make sure you are getting what you are paying for. Because if something does happen, and the network is down, the only thing you have to rely on is your service-level agreement."

Procurement also is in question. "Procurement is a key issue that will still have to be figured out," Coleman said.

Tseronis noted that the best candidate for cloud deployment would be with a smaller agency that is standing up a new program but might not be able to afford a full-fledged data center. In this case, "Cloud computing looks awfully attractive," hesaid. "Cloud computing is just another opportunity from a strategic standpoint to figure out: How do we spend our money ... on tools that allow us to do our business?" he said.

Tseronis reminded the audience that, under the new administration, the onus will be on providing justification for building a new data center rather than using a cloud service, rather than vise versa. "If you don't build out that business case ... and it hits the [Office of Management and Budget] examiners, and they are looking to see the justification for the money to do this, [they will ask] why aren't they buying cloud services?"

"Cloud gives you the opportunity to say, 'I don't want to own this stuff any more and worry about paying for it every four years,' " Tseronis said. With a monthly cloud bill, he said, you can say,  "That's the cost of doing business.'"

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