Agencies, choose your clouds – here are the 3 basic options

The pros and cons of public clouds, agency clouds and using GSA as a broker

Where will federal, state and local agencies turn for help in satisfying government mandates for moving their computing, data storage and applications to the cloud?

Will they rely on their parent agencies to set up and provision those services? Will they make arrangements directly with public cloud providers such as Amazon or Salesforce? Or will they tap the government’s general contractor, the General Services Administration, which wants to establish itself as a cloud services broker?

Whichever path agencies choose, they will need to begin sooner rather than later. The Obama administration has asked agencies to cut the number of federal data centers by 40 percent in five years and identify applications to move to the cloud within 18 months. The latter is a critical piece of the cloud-first policy outlined in the Office of Management and Budget’s recent 25-point plan for federal IT reform. 

Fortunately, a range of options exist for agencies, including going directly to public cloud providers, looking to parent agencies or third-party agency sources for cloud services and using GSA as a middleman or broker.

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As the federal government’s centralized public-services provider, GSA is already well positioned to broker cloud services and provide access to computing infrastructure, storage and software development resources.

“It would be more efficient, and we would be less likely to purchase excess capacity with a centralized, multitenant model,” said Sanjeev “Sonny” Bhagowalia, deputy associate administrator at GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies.

To that end, last fall, GSA awarded contracts to 12 vendors to provide cloud storage, virtual machines and Web hosting to federal, state, local and tribal agencies via the agency’s cloud storefront, The companies are going through a security certification and accreditation process.

Working with OMB, GSA is also poised to award an e-mail-in-the-cloud procurement for all of government. The request for information and draft request for quotations have been methodical, open and transparent, Bhagowalia said.

“We would like as many players and respectability accorded to this type of buying power,” which would obviate the need for other agencies to get involved with IT acquisition negotiations, he said.

Big consumers

Although GSA stands as the odds-on favorite source for many federal agencies and offices that seek cloud services, some of the federal government’s biggest computing consumers are also equipped to offer cloud services within and outside their traditional service boundaries.

Those agencies include the Defense Information Systems Agency, the Interior Department’s National Business Center and NASA — agencies that already possess the infrastructure to provide network, IT or acquisition services outside their traditional mission areas.

However, although it might be technically feasible for those agencies to also become cloud service providers, there are significant roadblocks, Bhagowalia said.

First, it is not within most agencies’ core mission to provide such services, he said. Second, agencies would need to set up processes for business and service delivery. Cloud computing also requires a pay-as-you-go payment model, which is fundamentally different from the charge-back mechanisms used today.

Moreover, although OMB recognizes the need for agencies to more dynamically pool resources, it is not clear that OMB intended for agencies to be established as preferred cloud providers in the government.

“I don’t think the immediate intent was for agencies to unilaterally build out additional capabilities,” said Bob Otto, executive vice president of advisory services at Agilex, an IT consulting firm. “My concern is that this additional focus may detract from their core mission.”

However, a lot of agencies are pointing to the need for cloud service providers to be set up within the government firewall. If the government wants agencies to function as cloud service providers, it should establish clear rules for engagement, Otto said.

Agencies turn to private clouds

Although prospects for agencies to offer cloud services at large might be uncertain, many large departments are acquiring and managing cloud services for their internal agencies and offices. DISA and the Homeland Security Department are providing internal users with e-mail as a service, virtual servers, storage or software on demand.

DISA provides virtual machines for software development, test and production for DOD users through the agency’s internal cloud, the Rapid Access Computing Environment. DISA also provides, a collaborative environment for the development and use of open source and DOD software. The agency will begin offering e-mail as a service to the Army this month.

Last year, Interior’s NBC also began offering agency users access to collaboration and social media software via a private cloud. Toward the end of 2009, NBC began providing infrastructure services, letting agency users order and set up virtual servers and computing resources through a Web portal, and platform as a service, which offers development tools on top of the infrastructure service.

Providing services via a cloud computing model is a natural move for NBC, which, as a shared-services provider, offers federal agencies access to government financial management systems, human resources packages, acquisition automation and other enterprise applications. However, it is not clear if or when NBC plans to extend cloud services to other agencies. NBC executives declined an interview request for this article.

NASA Nebula

NASA’s Nebula also has been identified as a possible provider of cloud services to other agencies. Nebula is an open-source cloud computing project designed to supply NASA scientists and engineers with additional data-processing capabilities. Nebula users can provision computer and storage resources as needed without needing to go through any approval process or bureaucratic mechanisms.

But it appears that at this point, NASA also is focused on refining cloud services for its internal users. NASA is working with OMB on a cohesive data center consolidation, cloud computing and virtualization strategy, said Chris Kemp, NASA’s chief technology officer, who spoke at a FedScoop Cloud Shout Out event held in Washington, D.C., in December 2010.

NASA is focused on a strategy that includes the Nebula cloud, a private cloud, and the establishment of a cloud service office that will look at all types of clouds and help users fit their applications to the right solution, Kemp said.

Future GSA services

Meanwhile, GSA has opened its doors to agencies seeking cloud services, having already awarded contracts to 12 companies to offer infrastructure-as-a-service services, ranging from online storage to Web hosting.

The companies are now through security accreditation, part of a certification process that they are expected to complete sometime in the second quarter of the fiscal year. At that point, agencies would be able to purchase the IaaS services via, Bhagowalia said.

GSA is preparing to award a governmentwide contract for software-as-as service e-mail solutions from cloud service providers, which will let agencies migrate e-mail systems to the cloud.

Leading by example, GSA announced last fall that it is moving e-mail and collaboration tools to the cloud, becoming the first federal agency to move e-mail to a cloud-based system agencywide. GSA will use Google Apps for Government, a suite of cloud computing applications, which received Federal Information Security Management Act certification and accreditation from the government in July 2010.

Shortly after that announcement, the Agriculture Department said it is moving its e-mail, document-sharing and other collaboration tools to Microsoft’s cloud infrastructure to save money and improve efficiency. 

GSA also is interested in platform-as-a-service offerings, especially geospatial applications, and would likely start by offering a small geospatial vignette application for agencies, Bhagowalia said. Beyond that, GSA is working with the CIO Council on other platform-as-a service offerings that take advantage of software repositories that users can provision directly from the site.

“We think agencies will have quick wins with storage, virtual machines and Web hosting” services in the cloud, Bhagowalia, said.

“We think we have some good energy with an IT reform policy and vision of the federal CIO Vivek Kundra,” Bhagowalia added. “GSA is right in the middle of providing this access; it is right in our wheelhouse to do this.”

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