The Government’s Place in the Cloud

One of my predictions for 2009 was that many of the new Obama administration’s initiatives would promote and accelerate the growth of Software as a Service (SaaS) and cloud computing.

What I underestimated at that time was how quickly government itself would embrace SaaS and cloud computing to improve its own operations in today’s tough economic climate.

When I first made my prediction, many people said I was crazy because the government is notoriously resistant to change. It is commonly viewed as risk-averse when it comes to relinquishing its IT operations and associated data to outside services. However, the opposite is actually the case.

While the federal government certainly suffers from plenty of bureaucracy, that hasn’t prevented it from fueling its share of technological innovation via the space and defense programs.

Federal CIO: SaaS First

Federal, state and local government agencies have also been relying on government contractors for decades to build, manage and staff various aspects of their IT operations for years. CSC, EDS and countless other outsourcers built the bulk of their businesses in the public sector.

My first hint of the growing interest in SaaS and cloud computing came when I moderated a session on these topics in Washington, D.C., last December — before the Obama administration had even taken office.

My session was part of a nationwide roadshow, and the Washington stop attracted the largest crowd I had encountered. The audience included IT professionals from numerous federal, state and local agencies, as well as representatives from many area companies, i.e., “beltway bandits.”

They were all interested in learning how they could leverage SaaS and cloud computing to more effectively address ongoing challenges, streamline their bureaucratic processes and reduce their operating costs.

In March, Obama’s new CIO — Vivek Kundra — made it clear he was a big proponent of SaaS and cloud computing when he said to The Wall Street Journal, “I’m a big believer in disruptive technology. If I went to the coffee shop, I would have more computing power than the police department. Consumers had better technology than the government did. I’m all about the cloud computing notion. I look at my lifestyle, and I want access to information wherever I am. I am killing projects that don’t investigate Software as a Service first.”

Secure Enough for DoD

The government’s interest and adoption of SaaS/cloud computing solutions has penetrated even the toughest corners of the federal government.

In April, RightNow Technologies unveiled new, secure hosting capabilities designed to satisfy the stringent requirements of the Department of Defense (DoD), as well as civilian government and intelligence agencies.

Two military commands within the DoD have already agreed to adopt RightNow’s new capabilities.

In June, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Information Technology Laboratory issued a first draft of its working definition of “cloud computing,” which has quickly gained acceptance in the commercial world as well:

“Cloud computing is a model for enabling convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction. This cloud model promotes availability and is composed of five essential characteristics, three delivery models, and four deployment models.”

Last week, I had the privilege of chairing CloudWorld in San Francisco, where California’s Secretary of State, Debra Bowen, discussed how her department is leveraging the cloud to address a variety of requirements, including the electoral process.

She specifically mentioned how the state utilized Amazon Web Services (AWS) to support a temporary Web site that reported recent local election results at a fraction of the cost and with far less hassles than deploying their own servers. She laughed when she reported that the state received a bill of US$13 for an evening’s worth of compute time and then received a refund of $6 — making the total expense only $7, rather than tens of thousands of dollars in server costs it would have incurred otherwise.

These examples don’t necessarily thrust government into the vanguard of the cloud computing and SaaS movement, but there is no question that these government initiatives are helping to fuel the growth of SaaS and cloud computing.

They also prove that every sector can benefit from the rapidly expanding array of on-demand capabilities. You can expect to see more government programs move to the cloud in the months and years to come. These programs will also expose more people and businesses to the benefits of cloud computing.

Jeff Kaplan is the managing director of THINKstrategies and founder of the SaaS Showplace. He can be reached at [email protected].

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