Thousands of federal employees will be using cloud-based email systems as government agencies take their first steps in meeting a mandate to inaugurate cloud services within their information technology systems. The White House has directed 25 large agencies to launch at least one cloud-migration project by the end of the year and two more by mid-2012.
The Federal Chief Information Officers Council released a list of 78 candidate projects for cloud migration late last month, and the most popular application among them is email.
For IT vendors, the list is the first comprehensive document that not only shows how many projects will be in the first cut of the federal program but also provides important information on the types of applications agencies have determined are initially best suited for cloud technology.
Of the 78 projects, 14 are dedicated to email migrations. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs tops the list for email applications in terms of sheer size, with a potential migration of 417,000 in-boxes. The next largest, in order, are the U.S. Department of Agriculture (120,000); the Social Security Administration (108,000) and the U.S Interior Department (85,000).
Agency officials specifically cite websites and hosting services for 10 of the remaining 68 cloud migration projects. Other applications include document control and a variety of business management functions.
“The publication of the list shows the continuing commitment to the cloud, and that is positive,” Paul Garver, chief executive officer at Quest Software Public Sector, told the E-Commerce Times. “But I didn’t see anything that knocked my socks off that showed something really innovative or mission-critical to an agency.”
Cautious Beginning for Cloud
Projects with more than 100,000 email users likely won’t be easy to launch, but they are functionally somewhat on the prosaic side.
“I think that reflects a little caution at this stage of cloud innovation,” Bob Monahan, director of management information systems at consultant DRC, told the E-Commerce Times. “We are at the front end of an emerging technology, so later in the cycle you might see more challenging applications.”
The federal CIO cloud project list includes brief descriptions of each project, but not much about whether an agency is seeking to utilize an internal, public, private or hybrid cloud configuration.
However, a survey released by Quest Software Public Sector in late May provides some insights into the attitudes of federal IT managers regarding cloud applications. Only 3.6 percent of federal managers indicated they were comfortable with utilizing either public or private cloud mechanisms.
However, there was a strong bias toward home cooking. Of the 307 federal respondents in the survey, 17 percent favored the use of a cloud platform offered by another government agency. Quest reported that another 15 percent favored setting up their own private cloud, while 12 percent of the respondents said they would use the General Services Administration as a “broker” for cloud services.
The survey also suggests that security remains a major issue for federal IT managers seeking to utilize cloud technology. Quest reported that 56.4 percent of respondents believed that existing federal security standards and regulations needed to be supplemented with additional cloud security standards and regulations, best practices and guidelines.
Security can often be used as a device to resist shifting to the cloud, but it is a genuine concern, Garver said.
“The government collects a lot of personal information and has other data that needs protection, so the concern is real,” he explained, “especially in light of some of the hacking incidents that have taken place. But the solution needs to be framed broadly. The government needs to make a decision en masse on security.”
Exit Strategy Looms Large
Two other significant factors affecting cloud adoption at the federal level are revealed in the Quest survey, which was conducted in collaboration with Norwich University. The first is that lack of in-house expertise is a bigger factor than front-end costs in pursuing cloud applications. The second is that the overwhelming majority of federal respondents (90.3 percent) said they don’t have or are unaware of whether they have a cloud computing exit strategy, which agencies need if they want to move their data or change cloud providers down the road.
“That 90 percent figure was a surprise. I expected some level of concern there, but that was a high number. The agencies need the capability to get in and get out if for some reason the project isn’t working out,” Garver said.
“The exit factor is a key element,” said DRC’s Monahan. “Agencies will have to ensure that their service level agreements reflect thet ability to change.”
Even with a tendency for federal agencies to lean toward internal cloud solutions, there will be ample opportunities for commercial cloud vendors. First, some applications will likely be turnkey migrations to commercial cloud providers. Second, other types of configuration will require assistance from system integrators or software providers. Even major cloud providers who fail to obtain turnkey contracts can still provide support services.
“I don’t think you will see too much change in terms of the vending landscape. The current players at all levels, including consultants like us, have a lot to offer in terms of support,” said Monahan.
“I don’t see the tilt away from public and private clouds necessarily as a negative, but as identifying an opportunity. Over the course of time, these agencies have developed capabilities in which there has been a lot of replication. Taking advantage of that with collaborative efforts to reduce the overlaps with shared services in a cloud environment still presents opportunities for vendors,” he explained.
“Government adoption of cloud computing is inevitable,” Salesforce.com’s Global Public Sector Senior VP Dan Burton told the E-Commerce Times.
While the listing of 78 projects reflects that the government’s “Cloud First” policy is accelerating government adoption, “many of these cloud applications were implemented before the policy was announced, which shows just how much momentum there already is behind the government’s shift to the cloud,” he said.
“Also, the wide scope of government applications being moved to the cloud shows just how much potential cloud computing holds for government agencies,” Burton added. “We are at the beginning of a shift that will be as broad as it is deep.”