Get to know cloud computing's advantages

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Budget constraints drive efficiency

The twin pressures of reduced budgets and the need for greater efficiency have led the federal government to strongly promote cloud computing as a solution whenever possible. In fact, the Office of Management and Budget in December 2010 declared that government now operates under a cloud-first policy, meaning that agencies must first try to incorporate some type of cloud computing into projects. And if they choose not to use a cloud scenario, they must justify their decision.

“What this means is that going forward, when evaluating options for new IT deployments, OMB will require that agencies default to cloud-based solutions whenever a secure, reliable, cost-effective cloud option exists,” said Jeffrey Zients, chief performance officer and deputy director for management at OMB, in November 2010.

According to a survey released in December 2010 by the 1105 Government Information Group, cost reduction, fast access to data and applications, and simplifying IT infrastructure and management are the top three reasons that federal agencies are moving to the cloud. Roughly half of the 460 respondents work for a civilian agency, while the other half worked for military agencies. And roughly half had non-IT titles but substantial roles in technology decision-making while the other half had IT titles.

The survey also found most government respondents indicated that private, public or hybrid cloud computing will become a vital element in federal IT activity during the next several years. Indeed, roughly one-third of respondents have already adopted or are in the process of adopting one or more cloud implementations.

Shedding even more light on the potential of cloud in government, a study released in April 2010 by Market Connections found that government users are willing to use cloud computing for core functions of their IT infrastructure. Nearly one-quarter use cloud computing for mission-critical data management and an even higher percentage is considering doing so.

Input, a government technology market research firm, validates these survey observations as well. It predicts that the government market for cloud computing will more than triple from 2010 to 2014, to $1.2 billion.

What type of cloud makes sense?

Moving to the cloud can bring many benefits, but one size doesn’t fit all. The type of cloud you ultimately choose has a lot to do with the importance of the mission or application, in addition to the relative importance of issues such as time, availability, data portability, security, data transfer, high performance and rapid scaling.

The most common type of cloud environment in government today by far is the private cloud. Private clouds are operated solely for one organization, can be managed either by the organization itself or by a third party, and can exist either on-site or off-site.

In general, federal agencies and departments opt for private clouds when sensitive or mission-critical information is involved. Private clouds are hosted on an agency's own dedicated hardware, and services and infrastructure are maintained on a private network. This increases security, reliability, performance and service. Yet like other types of clouds, it's easy to scale quickly and pay for only what is used, making it an economical model.

Here a few examples of private clouds throughout government.

  • NATO’s Allied Command Transformation, in concert with IBM, is developing a private, on-premise cloud for testing and developing network solutions for command, control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance projects.
  • Last year, the Customs and Border Patrol agency started moving its collaboration software and e-mail services to a private cloud inside of one of the Homeland Security Department’s data centers.
  • Los Alamos National Laboratory has implemented a private cloud with HP technology that allows researchers to use servers on demand.

Many vendors provide private clouds to government, including IBM, Lockheed Martin, Hewlett-Packard and Oracle.

The public cloud

Unlike private clouds, public clouds are usually made available to the general public or other government departments or agencies. Like all clouds, they are pay as you go, meaning that agencies pay only for the computing power they need at a given time or should be for the number of users. Public clouds are more secure than accessing information via the Internet and tend to cost less than private clouds because services are more commoditized. Research by the 1105 Government Information Group found that for federal agencies interested in public clouds, the most popular functions are:

  • Collaboration;
  • Social networks;
  • CRM;
  • Storage.

Public clouds are an ideal solution for the burgeoning cost of managing internal storage. They provide a cost-effective alternative to operating and maintaining agencies’ storage area networks. Although some agencies are wary of the public cloud because of security concerns, others have overcome those concerns and are moving forward. One example is the Treasury Department, which has moved its website, Treasury.gov, to a public cloud using Amazon’s EC2 cloud service to host the site and its applications. The site includes social media such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to communicate with its constituents. Another example of public cloud adoption is the Agriculture Department’s Food and Nutrition Service. It uses Amazon’s cloud to support an application to help people locate retailers that accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

Even DHS can embrace the public cloud in the right circumstances. CIO Richard Spires stated in October 2010 that the department plans to contract with a public cloud provider to host its public-facing websites.

Other cloud computing models

Hybrid cloud computing is exactly what it sounds like: a combination of both public and private clouds. In this scenario, two or more clouds coexist in the same environment — the private cloud containing sensitive information and applications and the public cloud containing less sensitive information and platforms.

This model allows organizations to combine everything under one infrastructure, facilitating collaboration and management, while maintaining the desired level of security and privacy.

NASA is one federal agency that has embraced the hybrid model. Its Nebula open-source cloud computing project uses a private cloud for research and development as well as a public cloud to share datasets with external partners and the public.

State governments are turning to hybrid clouds as well:

  • Colorado’s plan includes a private cloud for highly secure, line-of-business data and systems; a virtual private cloud for archival storage and disaster recovery; and a public cloud for e-mail, office productivity applications and websites.
  • Michigan also plans to provide cloud services via a hybrid model to its agencies, cities, counties and schools.

Yet another type of cloud is a community cloud. Shared by several organizations, this type of cloud deployment supports a specific community with a shared mission or interest and can be shared by several departments or agencies.

Examples might include a community dedicated to compliance considerations or a community focused on security requirements policy. There may be a community cloud for health-related concerns throughout government, or one for everything related to immigration.

Community clouds can be managed by the organizations involved, or by a third party, and may reside on-site or off-site. Data may be stored from several organizations on partitioned servers and disks. Several vendors are getting in on the community cloud trend, including IBM, which said two agencies have signed onto its Federal Community Cloud so far. Although there are many types of cloud scenarios, there probably is one that is right for every environment. It’s just a matter of finding the right one.

Federal Cloud Initiatives

  • Data.gov: An open-government initiative from the Executive Office of the President that provides a centralized federal cloud providing easy public access to datasets generated by federal agencies.
  • The Defense Information Systems Agency’s Rapid Access Computing Environment: A cloud-based solution that allows users to purchase a basic computing environment and use it on demand.
  • NASA Nebula: An open-source cloud computing project and service that provides infrastructure on demand and a way for NASA scientists and researchers to share large, complex datasets with external partners and the public.
  • The General Services Administration's Info.Apps.gov: A website where agencies can research how cloud computing can enable them to provide more cost-effective IT services for federal government.
  • Interior Department's National Business Center: Infrastructure as a service, platform as a service and software as a service offerings via the cloud for other federal agencies.
  • Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program: An interagency initiative spearheaded by the National Institute of Standards and Technology to provide a governmentwide certification process to ensure security of cloud products and services.
  • The Standards Acceleration to Jumpstart Adoption of Cloud Computing: Run by NIST, it aims to drive the formation of cloud computing standards by providing working examples that show how key use cases can be supported on cloud systems that have implemented a set of specifications.

About the Author

Karen D. Schwartz is a freelance writer for 1105 Government Information Group’s Content Solutions unit. This research report was commissioned by the Content Solutions unit, an independent editorial arm of 1105 Government Information Group. Specific topics are chosen in response to interest from the vendor community; however, sponsors are not guaranteed content contribution or review of content before publication. For more information about 1105 Government Information Group Content Solutions, please e-mail us at GIGCustomMedia@1105govinfo.com