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Government Steps Into The Cloud

Government Steps Into The Cloud

The Obama Administration committed itself Tuesday to reducing federal computing costs by pursuing cloud computing, but its first steps appear tentative. The administration launched Apps.gov as a storefront where federal agencies may go to purchase on-demand applications from private vendors.

In its first iteration, federal computing in the cloud consists strictly of software-as-a-service applications or other Internet services.

The applications first available at Apps.gov Tuesday featured known social networking options such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. For customer relationship management, recruitment, and project management, Saleforce.com apps were prominent. Google Docs and other on-line apps were also available under the productivity applications category.

Exactly how cloud computing will evolve with support from the federal government remains up in the air, with many candidates still in play. In some forms, offsite cloud resources accept spikes in workloads normally run behind the organization's firewall. Federal CIO Vivek Kundra made it clear Tuesday that curtailing the constant buildout of federal data centers was one of his goals.

Kundra appeared at NASA'S Ames Research Center outside Mountain View, Calif. and acknowledged that initially, the government agency shopping portal is reaching for low hanging fruit. Private software as-a-service providers will eventually flock to Apps.gov and populate it with their products. But Apps.gov "is starting small," he said.

"We are just beginning this undertaking, and it will take time before we can realize the full potential of cloud computing," Jundra said in a blog posted Tuesday on the Whitehouse Web site.

"By consolidating available services, Apps.gov is a one-stop source for cloud services -- an innovation that not only can change how IT operates but also save taxpayer dollars in the process," Kundra said in the blog. In effect, the site is a demonstration that government procurement can proceed more efficiently in the cloud. The applications listed on the site have required -- and received -- General Services Administration approval.

To investigate the way private suppliers of cloud services can be substituted for building more government data centers, the administration will seek funding for pilot cloud projects in next year's budget. It will seek to set standards and policies to be able to begin implementing cloud services by 2011, Kundra said.

The goal of pilot projects will be to define what workloads might be offloaded from federal data center processing to the cloud, and what new services might be built as cloud services. The federal government spends $75 billion a year on IT budgets. In one example Kundra cited, Homeland Security has 23 data centers and needs to find a way to streamline and consolidate their operation.

While there is agreement on the general outline of cloud computing, security in the cloud needs to be better defined and implemented, Kundra said.

is often cited as a pioneer in cloud computing, where workloads may be sent from a remote location, activated in the cloud by the sender and the results of the processing retrieved. Users are charged on a $.10 per hour basis in its simplest form, with storage and database services also available.

Users who ship data to the cloud will need contractual guarantees that it will be maintained with the same level of security as it was in-house, but neither vendors nor users are sure yet how such guarantees can be made. The owner of the data remains responsible if it is lost or misused and it remains unclear how much of that responsibility, if any, can be shifted to a cloud supplier.

Kundra, however, spent most of his time listing the many potential benefit of cloud computing. Reducing the cost of government computing was at the top of the list, but reducing electricity consumption, gaining flexibility of data center operations, and speeding up government responses to citizen complaints, crises, and disasters, also earned rankings on his list.

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google (NSDQ: GOOG), attended Kundra's briefing and said afterward that Google's search engine products were potential candidates to help in establishing federal cloud services. "Cloud is effective because of the power of the economies of scale," and services that can be used by thousands of federal employees, regardless of which data center usually serves them, will help Kundra achieve his aims, he said in an interview. Google's goal of making information available and useful fits in well with the notion of federal computing in the cloud, he added.

Winston Bumpus, president of a group attempting to set cloud standards, the Distributed Management Task Force, also attended the event. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is taking a role in setting cloud definitions and standards, which may guide the choices being made in pilot projects and initial funding, he noted in an interview.

Salesforce.com already offers software-as-a service to the State Department for project management, the U. S. Army for recruitment, and NASA for customer relationship management in technology transfer. Daniel Burton, Salesforce.com's government watchdog in Washington, called Apps.gov "a tremendous advance in streamlining government procurement," and predicted more such procurement sites were likely to follow.

"If you are a government agency interested in purchasing applications, you find a list approved by the GSA, put in an approved government purchasing card, and check out your shopping cart," he noted. Vivek Kundra and GSA CIO Casey Coleman are changing the federal government's complex methods of procurement faster than he thought possible, he said.

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