Congress casts a skeptical eye on the cloud

The debate over cloud computing finds its way to the Hill

The case for moving government computing to the cloud — and the skepticism that surrounds it — made the equivalent of its off-Broadway debut in Washington July 1. That's when the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee summoned an all-star cast of federal and industry officials to the Rayburn House Office Building to testify on the promises and risks of cloud computing.

The fact-finding session might have come up short on theatrics. But what was notable is the fact that cloud computing — and its potential effect on future government technology programs — finally found its way onto the congressional stage in the first place.

Even Tom Davis, the committee's former chairman, whose portrait loomed over the proceedings, might have been impressed to see the panel's ranking member, Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), and Committee Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) taking on a technology debate that until recently existed mostly in the technical community.

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Towns set the stage for the examination, but Issa set the tone. The key issues for Towns were how to balance the risks and rewards of an information technology likely to dominate federal IT discussions during the next decade — and what steps Congress should take to deal with the inherent security and privacy concerns.

However, Issa warned: “If we hear about cost savings, I will not yawn, I will not pretend to be disinterested, but I will not be a true believer that cost savings will drive the move to cloud computing.” Issa, who hasn’t forgotten his days using punch cards and sharing computer time on DEC 10 mainframes, recalled the huge savings promised by the government’s Networx telecommunications program, which, he said, have yet to materialize because of how slowly bureaucrats move. Why would cloud computing be different?

Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra made his case that the real benefit of cloud computing is agility — and an essential step to reversing the proliferation of government data centers. The General Services Administration’s David McClure stressed how the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program and other recent measures represent important steps to ease bureaucratic gridlock.

Representatives from Microsoft, Google, EMC and Carnegie Mellon University also took turns highlighting why economics, high-speed broadband and centralized security expertise made cloud computing inevitable. Salesforce.com’s Daniel Burton made the clearest case for true multitenant cloud computing, and he warned that agencies should expect little benefit if they merely migrate to private, single-tenant clouds.

Towns and his committee deserve credit for starting to take a long, hard look at cloud computing. Moreover, it’s good to see congressional attention returning to how technology can be better harnessed in the federal government.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.


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