New metrics needed for cloud computing

Old rules of procurement, secuirty and costing need to be revised if agencies are to take advantage of cloud computing, one panel says

Earlier this mont,h the Veterans Affairs Department halted progress on 45 IT projects, with a collective budget of $200 million, because managers had failed to adequately provide the business justification for these systems.

These days, the value of a system being developed must be demonstrated quickly, said Stephen Warren, deputy chief information officer for the VA. "All [VA] product delivery systems have to deliver functionality on a six-month-or-less schedule," he said, speaking at the MeriTalk Cloud Service Level Agreement breakfast roundtable held this week in Washington.

Cloud computing may change the requirements of how progress is measured in the upcoming years, the panelists said. IT people like to measure cycles, but end users know how well a system works by its end-to-end performance, Warren noted. "When I sit down at that computer, do I see the functionality I need?" he said. As agencies start to use cloud services, the service-level agreements (SLAs) between the agency and the cloud provider will have to be hammered out, sometime using language that would be new to today's procurement policies.

The Defense Department's Defense Information Systems Agency is one government agency that is trying to change the perception of how service is measured. The agency offers other DOD offices IT capabilities, though it still gets questions from potential users about such factors as where backup copies of the data reside, said Roberta Stempfley, the DISA chief information officer. DISA is in the process of reducing the number of data centers it has from 100 down to 15 and so is moving around virtual operating environments for maximum efficiency. She said the agency is persuading its customers to think of IT as a service, rather than a collection of specific hardware and software that is being leased.

For about $500 a month, DISA offers the equivalent of an entire server, complete with operating system and supporting Web application stack, Stempfley said, adding that the agency worked hard to shorten the procurement time. Originally, if an customer wanted to use a server, it could take up to 27 days to get the appropriate sign-offs. Now the agency offers its customers the ability to pay by an agency credit card, which means a military service can have a complete ready-to-run service in less than 24 hours.

Stempfley agreed with Warren that the SLAs with customers are not measured in IT traditional models. One DISA customer, a medical health unit, asked for a guarantee that DISA could process 23 patent cases a day. Thus, it was left to DISA to figure out how much hardware would be needed to cover the task.

Patrick Stingley, the chief technology officer for the Bureau of Land Management and former CTO of the Federal Cloud Initiative, said the average cost for a government agency to acquire a server is about $2,000. Until the government can purchase servers as cheaply as a large organization such as Google can, cloud computing may prove to be a more cost-effective alternative to building out facilities in-house.

For agencies, SLAs could be mapped back to the Federal Enterprise Architecture's Service Reference Model, which would draw the key metric indicators from the Technical Reference Model, should it be updated, Stingley said. He has posted a chart that shows how such a definition of SRM-based services would look. "In order to put together a cost model and SLAs, I need to know more specifically what services I am looking for," he said.

Stingley also said cloud computing could cut the requirements for in-house expertise, which may save more money. Today's large agency may be supporting four or five different operating systems, such as Microsoft Windows, Linux, Solaris, AIX. Hiring experts for all of these platforms may be difficult. But if the agency could settle on two platforms and move the other operations out to the cloud, then it would be easier and less expensive to hire the fewer needed personnel.

Stingley also said that even if cloud computing would not save any taxpayer dollars, it would still be a worthwhile endeavor, as it forces agencies to separate their data from proprietary in-house systems. "Because we will need to be able to move from Provider A to Provider B, this will force us to move to open data," he noted.

Earlier this week, MeriTalk, along with the consulting firm Merlin, released a survey of 605 federal IT executives which found that only 13 percent of IT executives reported that their agencies used cloud computing, while 44 percent report using applications that rely on the cloud.

MeriTalk posted the presentations of the event's speakers on its community site. Free registration required.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.


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