In search of a standard definition for an evolving technology

How do agencies deliver a technology solution whose scope is yet undetermined?

One of the most frustrating things for potential users of cloud computing has been to get a handle on just what exactly the cloud is. That hasn’t been helped by the fact that, as the initial hype over the cloud grew, IT vendors scenting a potential payday have loudly advertised their cloud offerings, even it that meant simply adding the term “cloud” to what they already provided.

“The definition of cloud has improved from where it was a few years ago, when it was all over the place,” said Deniece Peterson, senior manager of federal industry analysis at Deltek. “But it’s still in-between, so we do need a common language for the cloud.”

The National Institute of Standards and Technology made the first attempt at pulling together a standard definition for cloud last year. Admitting that cloud was still “an evolving paradigm,” NIST said its definition nevertheless would serve as a means for broad comparisons of cloud services and deployment strategies and provide a baseline for discussion that could go from what cloud computing is to how best agencies could use the cloud.

NIST defined cloud computing as “a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.”

Along with that it provided what it called five essential characteristics — on-demand self-service, broad network access, resource pooling, rapid elasticity and measured (metered) service — along with three service models and the four deployment methods of private, community, public and hybrid cloud as the operational guts of the definition.

That might already be out of date in some ways, however, because the idea of what you can deliver in the cloud is rapidly expanding. NIST’s definition provided just three service models — software, platform and infrastructure — in its definition of the cloud.

“It’s all still in a state of flux and evolution,” said Tom Simmons, area vice president of the U.S. Public Sector at Citrix Systems. “Infrastructure as a service is now pretty basic, and all cloud service providers have similar capabilities there. But it’s in such things as application, workplace and desktop as a service where we might find more potential, and those really are in the early stages of development.”

Some agencies are already pursuing these new variations of the cloud. Richard Spires, CIO at the Homeland Security Department, told a conference in October 2011 that DHS would set up a workplace-as-a-service private cloud to bundle virtual desktop and mobile device access capabilities into a single monthly cost.

This will be “a bit of a game changer,” he told the audience at the Executive Leadership Conference in Williamsburg, Va., because it represents such a departure from the normal way for DHS to do business. In April, Spires said the program would launch in the summer.

The future shape of the cloud might also be changed by an initiative launched late last year by Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel to promote the idea of shared services, which requires that agencies plan to move at least two IT services to shared interagency platforms by the end of 2012.

The idea builds on the Obama administration’s 25-Point Implementation Plan to Reform Federal IT Management that was developed by former Federal CIO Vivek Kundra to increase IT efficiencies and reduce costs by relying more on such things as commodity cloud storage rather than agency-specific systems.

Intra-government cloud services are the obvious direction this will take things in, according to Deltek’s Peterson, though it will take more action on the part of government to make it work.

“Agencies will go with what costs the least,” she said, “so will we see government policies [for these shared services] written around that?”

About this report

This report was commissioned by the Content Solutions unit, an independent editorial arm of 1105 Government Information Group. Specific topics are chosen in response to interest from the vendor community; however, sponsors are not guaranteed content contribution or review of content before publication. For more information about 1105 Government Information Group Content Solutions, please e-mail us at [email protected].