GSA boldly goes where no agency has gone before

Agency's effort to put its e-mail onto a privately owned cloud moves government cloud initiatives into uncharted territory.

The recent announcement by the General Services Administration that it would move its e-mail services to a cloud computing model may not necessarily herald a full-scale move toward cloud applications across the federal government. Whether other agencies and departments will follow GSA’s lead ultimately will depend on the effort’s success, according to Gartner Research.

Because it is leading the federal government’s cloud computing effort, the credit — and the blame — will reside with GSA, said Andrea Di Maio, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner. “To some extent, what GSA is doing now is to walk the talk,” he added.

What makes GSA’s move to cloud-based e-mail significant is that the service will be provided externally in a private cloud managed by either Microsoft or Google. Di Maio added that both companies have established their own government clouds and assured the government that their servers reside in the United States and comply with Federal Information Security Management Act requirements. By contrast, Di Maio noted that the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) and NASA operate their own clouds. “It’s a different beast from what we’ve seen before in the federal government because it’s really in an external cloud. It’s managed by a vendor, as opposed to having somebody in government, like DISA or NASA manage it,” he said.

While Di Maio thinks that the GSA’s external cloud is interesting, he believes that it will not be typical of government efforts, although the Interior Department is also considering moving its e-mail service to the cloud. He said that some time will be necessary for other agencies to observe the effort’s relative success before considering a similar move.

However, the risk to the GSA is considerably lower than for other agencies because it is perceived as the lead agency. “When you take a risk, you usually are prepared to have some sort of problem. That’s why I think it’s not typical. It would be interesting to see some other federal agencies to be the first to move email to the cloud, but that is very unlikely,” he said.

A number of pilot programs have been launched at the state and local levels with e-mail and content resource management (CRM) capabilities. But there have been no federal moves in areas such as CRM. While e-mail is considered mission-critical, records management is viewed as even more critical, with organizations viewing direct control of records as more vital than e-mail. “It’s a matter of maturity. Today, we’re talking about e-mail; I’m pretty sure that by the end of this year, we’ll start talking about documents management or records management in the cloud. Probably in two or three years time, we’ll start seeing something like financial management, human resources management, more business related services,” he said.

Internationally, many world governments are also interested in cloud computing. But these efforts are mainly at the agency and ministry levels, according to Di Maio. For example, in Australia, the department of education for the state of New South Wales launched a cloud initiative slightly more than a year ago. Other international deployments include Japan’s Ministry of Trade.

But the United Kingdom is the only nation undertaking a government wide cloud strategy on the scale of the United States. The British government’s G-Cloud is a hybrid cloud structure with a public-private architecture and communities.

Di Maio said the United Kingdom’s cloud initiative examines deeper issues than the U.S. effort. For example, the British government is developing a service called the Government Application Store. This is not simply a cloud application shop; it will be the only channel for procuring IT services in the British government. The applications store will allow agencies to purchase software services, commercial off the shelf software, hire consultants or any other sourcing arrangements that are required through this service.

“It’s much broader and deeper because it really looks at cloud computing not as an exception or something totally different from what came before, but just as one alternative sourcing option amongst a variety of others and providing agencies and departments the ability to choose what they see fit between cloud, non cloud and traditional sourcing,” he said.

Di Maio sees similarities in the move to cloud computing  and the move to open-source software and computing services in the past decade. In Europe and the United States, there was a top-down imperative to push open-source applications and services. Now, they are part of the resources and tools available to government planners. He hopes the same will happen to cloud computing in the U.S. and abroad.

“At the end of the day, I hope agencies will buy whatever makes sense. And in some cases it may still be something different from cloud computing,” he said.

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