U.S. government agencies want to use more cloud-computing services, but several hurdles still stand in the way, including the U.S. government's budgeting process and a lack of understanding of government's needs by vendors, three agency IT executives said.
In some cases, cloud-computing vendors don't understand the scope of what government agencies need, said Chris Kemp, CIO at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Ames Research Center in California. Some cloud-computing vendors offer a small cluster of computers, while NASA often needs massive clusters to perform scientific research, said Kemp, speaking at forum on new IT approaches for the federal government.
"We operate at science scale, not enterprise application scale," Kemp said at the forum, sponsored by MeriTalk, a government IT discussion site, and Affirm, a nonprofit group focused on improving information management in the federal government.
Kemp and two other government IT managers expressed strong interest in cloud computing, with all three saying they are in some stage of experimenting with it or deploying it. Cloud computing will allow agencies to share computing resources and to cut energy use if done correctly, Kemp said.
The advantages of cloud computing "are so compelling, I don't think there's any going back," added Casey Coleman, CIO at the General Services Administration.
Cloud computing also can help government agencies get access to computing resources much faster than current requisition methods, Kemp said. "If we can provision infrastructure in the cloud and make that a five-minute operation and not a three-month operation," that's a major benefit, he said.
But government agencies are still ironing out ways to write new contracts that cover cloud computing, said Doug Bourgeois, director of the National Business Center at the U.S. Department of Interior. The National Business Center, focused on providing business services to other agencies, is looking at providing more cloud-computing services, but it needs vendors to be more flexible, he said.
"How can the private sector infrastructure providers provide me with a business model that's pay as you go?" he said. "My customers are only going to pay for what they can use. I need to purchase infrastructure and technology under the same model, so it's truly a shared-risk partnership."
In addition to the vendor issues, several government obstacles to cloud computing exist, the panelists said. U.S. government computing systems need to meet several regulations, including cybersecurity rules under the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA), Coleman said. Vendors say they can comply with those regulations, but contracts to cover those rules will be complicated, she said.
In addition, the federal budgeting process isn't geared toward purchasing computing power on an as-you-need-it basis, said Radha Sekar, assistant deputy undersecretary of the defense comptroller for financial management in the Department of Defense. Cloud-computing vendors need to educate lawmakers about the benefits, she said.
Using computing services on an hourly basis will require new kinds of contracts and new budgeting, Kemp added. "I'm not going to turn this thing off if I've already paid for it for the next three years," he said. "If I'm paying for it on an hourly basis, and I can save a lot of money by turning it off, or I can save the environment by turning it off, I'll turn it off."
Kemp and Bourgeois also raised concerns that U.S. government agencies are each starting to contract with cloud vendors, instead of working together. "Without scale, and a lot of it, this is not going to be successful," Bourgeois said.
During an earlier speech, Red Hat President and CEO Jim Whitehurst encouraged government agencies to work together and build their own clouds as a way to get started in cloud computing. The government may have security concerns about turning over its data to private vendors, but government agencies could avoid several regulatory issues by running their own clouds, he said.
"If there's ever a good place to do it, it's here," Whitehurst said in an interview. "The federal government could run the biggest cloud ever."