5 lessons from DOD's cloud computing efforts

The Defense Department has taken the federal lead in deployed cloud computing solutions. Let’s look at four examples of DOD’s cloud efforts and five lessons other agencies can learn from the department’s experience.

The Defense Department has taken the federal lead in developing cloud computing solutions. Let’s look at four examples of DOD’s cloud computing efforts and five lessons other agencies can learn from the department’s experience.

The Rapid Access Computing Environment (RACE) enables DOD users to provision their own Windows or Red Hat Linux operating environment within 24 hours. Provisioning a DOD application or Web service used to take months. The precertified and accredited environment meets DOD's information assurance and computing standards.

Forge.mil provides an online environment for collaborative software development. The intranet includes tools for version control, bug tracking, integrated testing, cross-program collaboration, and access to open-source and community-source software.

RightNow customer relationship management software-as-a-service supports Air Force human resources call center agents and lets members of the Air Force manage their personal information changes and submit direct requests to the service's personnel office.

The Madigan Army Medical Center Personal Health Record Pilot program links DOD’s electronic health records system, AHLTA, and commercial PHR platforms from Microsoft’s HealthVault and Google Health. More than 400 Military Health System patients have successfully piloted the transfer of their medical health records from AHLTA to HealthVault and Google Health.

What can the rest of the government learn from DOD’s cloud computing efforts?

1. Cloud computing is a long game. Under the policy of network centricity, DOD has for more than a decade invested in infrastructure that can support cloud computing, including the Global Information Grid and the Defense Enterprise Computing Centers (DECC), by recognizing that network-based solutions provide information advantages on the battlefield.

Other agencies looking for results from cloud computing need to make a similar commitment and devote significant resources to the effort.

2. Make a rock-solid commitment to IT and network security. What are the major barriers to the adoption of cloud computing? In a survey of corporations by IDC last August, security was listed as the No. 1 challenge by 75 percent of users polled. Government user statistics are similar. Nondefense agencies would do well to follow DOD’s example of investing early to ensure the security of their initial cloud offerings. In terms of pure economics, it’s not optimal to mirror a commercial service inside a protected government computing environment, but that might be the best way to break the ice and overcome a major barrier — real or perceived — to getting started.

3. Build business processes that enable government cloud computing. Before it could attract customers to a DECC-hosted environment, the Defense Information Systems Agency had to do a lot of work bringing its costs in line with those of commercial data centers. Project leaders also had to work hard on their internal processes and procedures. For example, DISA has reduced the time for provisioning a computing environment from months to 24 hours. The technical part of provisioning RACE now takes less than 15 minutes. They’re still working on the remaining 23¾ hours, which are devoted to moving money. Routine business process issues can bring the cloud down to earth quicker than technical challenges. In the government environment, that means cutting through delays associated with contracting, licenses, payments and approvals.

4. Standardize. In the words of one senior DISA executive, go for “hyper standardization.” Each cloud service must meet the needs of a substantial community of government users, or you and your vendors won’t be able to spread your fixed costs across enough paying customers to achieve cloud efficiencies.

5. Consider the Internet cloud. The Madigan PHR pilot program demonstrates that when the value proposition is strong enough, DOD is willing to use commercial, Internet-based cloud computing software that goes beyond the GIG firewall. This should encourage other federal agencies and their industry partners to tackle tough challenges associated with Internet-based cloud computing, including security and privacy, in cases where going beyond the firewall can deliver big benefits to important federal constituencies, such as military personnel and their families.

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