Federal Cloud Adoption Blossoms

The U.S. government’s foray into cloud computing could hardly be called “mature,” but it appears to be moving from infancy to something akin to pre-teen status. Agencies increasingly are embracing the cloud, and the pace of acquisition reflects more comfort with the solution. Several recently launched initiatives affect federal agencies and technology vendors in the cloud acquisition process, for example.

The federal General Services Administration — which plays a key role in government information technology acquisition — last month asked private sector companies to assist it in improving federal cloud procurement through the GSA Schedule 70 process for acquiring IT products and services. GSA is seeking responses from industry by Wednesday.

In a similar move, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is seeking industry participation on three newly created committees dealing with cloud resources for the purpose of helping both government agencies and the private sector to procure and utilize cloud technology more effectively.

U.S. agencies will spend about US$3 billion on cloud projects in fiscal 2014. That’s about $800 million more than federal budget officials had predicted in 2013. A major cloud project at the Social Security Administration accounted for $141 million of the increase.

“Outside of a handful of high-profile projects, most of the fiscal 2014 cloud spending increase is spread across hundreds of smaller projects that have crept upwards thanks to a steady trickle of new cloud efforts and competitive price points,” said Shawn McCarthy, research director at IDC Government Insights, who analyzed spending patterns.

Cloud Gets Priority

Federal cloud spending could reach $2.9 billion in fiscal 2015, budget officials have predicted, but the actual level easily could exceed that mark, according to McCarthy.

“New projects almost always go to the cloud these days, at least for initial development environments. If they work well, they often stay there, unless there is a specific project requirement that they be hosted in a government data center,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“The boost in cloud spending does not necessarily mean agencies are going over budget for cloud projects. In fact, the increase is more a factor of IT planners realizing they can do some things cheaper in the cloud, and electing to redirect some of their IT dollars there in order to spark long-term savings,” McCarthy said.

Two of the recent initiatives were launched by federal agencies, while the third came from the private sector:

General Services Administration: GSA has proposed establishing a specific cloud acquisition component to its GSA-Schedule 70 acquisition program used for IT procurement. Schedule 70 cloud procurements currently are handled somewhat indirectly through related IT service categories. By establishing a specific and dedicated item for cloud procurements, GSA hopes to consolidate and simplify the way that cloud computing is offered via Schedule 70.

“As the cloud marketplace has matured, we’re seeing agencies readily use two vehicles to adopt the cloud — government wide acquisition contracts (GWACs) such as GSA’s Alliant procurement program, and Schedule 70. With Alliant being so broad, it is relatively easy to purchase cloud technology,” said Maynard Crumb, acting director, Office of Strategic Programs, at GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service.

“With Schedule 70, there is no Cloud Single Item Number (SIN), and therefore cloud technologies, integration, and migration services are split among various item numbers which makes for less competition, less transparency, and decreased ease of use for agencies. We think a Cloud SIN could help alleviate these issues,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

Potential advantages to the change:

  • Consolidating cloud services for ease of customer discovery and access, to support market research and acquisition planning;
  • Providing 70 vendors the ability to more easily differentiate cloud services from other IT products and services;
  • Improving cloud services sales reporting and visibility for IT Schedule 70;
  • Adding Value to GSA’s customers, because GSA would provide a high level-vetting of technologies and industry partners available through the Cloud SIN.

“We put out a Request for Information to get industry’s thoughts and gain greater understanding of how agencies are currently using Schedule 70 to purchase cloud. Our goal is to gather as much feedback as possible, ensure we’re collaborating with our government customers and our industry partners, and take all input into account. Once we’re able to sift through everything, we will determine the best course of action going forward,” Crumb said.

National Institutes of Standards and Technology: NIST is forming three public working groups to provide solutions to cloud computing challenges and is seeking industry participation for all three groups. The Interoperability and Portability for Cloud Computing group will identify the issues and types of interoperability and portability needed for cloud computing systems and the relationships and interactions between those two functions.

The Cloud Services group will address the need to clearly and consistently describe actual cloud services. The cloud computing definition promulgated by NIST currently categorizes such services as Software as a Service (SaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS) and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). Hosever, dozens of new types of cloud services and acronyms for them have popped up in the marketplace, noted NIST. The working group will use NIST’s Cloud Computing Reference Architecture to provide consistent categories of cloud services so buyers know what they are committing to before signing potentially costly, long-term contracts.

A third group will focus on “federated clouds” or systems that access internal and external cloud resources from multiple providers to meet their business needs. This group will define the term “federated cloud” and develop a path to its implementation.

“The NIST Cloud Roadmap program was oriented to federal cloud adoption, but the issues we are addressing can be used by both government and industry in their cloud procurement activities,” said Robert Bohn, NIST’s cloud computing technical manager.

“We see a need to standardize elements of cloud adoption to improve Service Level Agreements and other procurement components with more clarity,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

While some initial aspects of cloud adoption were by addressed by other NIST working groups, the interoperability and portability factors always were on the horizon as “the 800 pound gorilla in the room,” he noted, and are now being attended to as part of an evolving process.

The evolutionary nature of addressing procurement issues has been a factor at both GSA and NIST, whose programs have emerged in complementary fashion.

GSA’s Schedule 70 cloud initiative “fits perfectly into NIST’s goals of improving cloud acquisition,” GSA’s Crumb said.

TechAmerica: An updated Cloud Buyer’s Guide for the Federal Government was released by TechAmerica earlier this year to assist departments and agencies with their transition to cloud-based service models, a strategic priority for federal government under its Cloud First initiative, the trade group said.

The report highlights industry best practices and case studies to provide guidance on successful implementation models and a clear path for adopting cloud services, including information on issuing Requests for Proposals, evaluating pricing, and focusing on business outcomes rather than a proscriptive procurement approach.

The revised guide updates TechAmerica’s advisory issued four years ago, in light of changes in the federal cloud computing environment.

“The early agency adopters who have had success migrating to the cloud have shown the rest of the U.S. government cloud adoption can be a success. This has led to a steady increase in federal cloud related procurements,” said Mike Hettinger, senior vice president at TechAmerica.

Another factor spurring federal cloud procurement was the maturing of the FedRAMP program, designed by GSA, to provide government-wide security standards for federal cloud adoption.

“Ensuring that companies are FedRAMP-compliant has lessened agencies’ cloud adoption security concerns,” Hettinger told the E-Commerce Times.

Although most of the content in the guide is technical in nature, the case studies provide something of a marketing element with mentions of specific vendors.

John K. Higgins is a career business writer, with broad experience for a major publisher in a wide range of topics including energy, finance, environment and government policy. In his current freelance role, he reports mainly on government information technology issues for ECT News Network.

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