Panel: Cloud computing ‘new way of doing business’

Federal Drive Cloud Computing Discussion

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By Jack Moore
Federal News Radio

A signature initiative of the Obama administration involves how agencies approach IT. The cloud-first policy, part of the Office of Management and Budget’s 2010 25-point IT reform plan, asked agencies to begin shifting email, collaboration and other applications to shared facilities and services.

While the 25-point plan was seen as the kickoff-point in federal cloud computing efforts, the reality is many agencies were already setting off for the cloud even prior to that.

And since that guidance was first laid out, cloud computing has become an even more important tool for reducing infrastructure and software costs.

Fred Whiteside, project manager for the cloud computing program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Wolf Tombe, chief technology officer, Customs and Border Protection joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Amy Morris for a panel discussion on cloud computing in government.

CBP has turned to a number of cloud solutions, all on “as-a-service” platforms — email, collaboration tools, instant messaging.

“Those are all great opportunities for us to acquire cloud-based services and help reduce some of our costs, hopefully,” Tombe said.

More broadly, the NIST program that Whiteside spearheads is aimed at accelerating the adoption of cloud computing across the federal government, Whiteside said. NIST has published a slew of documents — including a technology roadmap and even a clear-cut definition of cloud computing.

NIST’s guidance is pored over by agency technology leaders and vendors hoping to supply to federal customers alike.

Despite all the talk of monumental cloud migrations, both Tombe and Whiteside said the cloud transfer can be a relatively painless shift.

“I don’t really think it is that hard to get launched,” Tombe said. Even before the 25-point plan, “we were already taking a number of steps to move to capabilities that are now being defined as cloud.”

“If you look at what cloud offers, it offers the potential to truly transform how we and OIT provide service and there are a lot of opportunities around that,” he added.

Still, for federal agencies, security remains a topmost concern.

“One of the things we have to always note is that security is always paramount,” Tombe said. This need for security has led agencies, including CBP to pursue both public and private clouds. For example, an agency’s public-facing website can be stored on a public cloud, while the need to protect more sensitive information is “driving us to a more private-cloud capability,” Tombe said of CBP.

However, with both public and private clouds, security boils down to the vendor.

Because the industry is still young, “things are changing everyday,” Tombe said. “And not all clouds or cloud vendors are equal.”

So agency managers must do their research, Tombe and Whiteside said.

NIST has issued security guidance for cloud, but many of the cloud security challenges will likely be familiar to agency technology managers.

“Cloud is no different than any other technology, in that no technology is completely secure,” Whiteside said, “and I wouldn’t say that a cloud system is any more or less secure. We’re really not talking about that much in the way of new technology. What we’re really talking about is a different way of implementing some of those technologies and deploying them.”

Still, cloud offers clear benefits: rapid scalability and deployment capabilities. And Whiteside pointed out the benefits associated with better efficiency doesn’t always boil down to cost.

“Cloud has a potential to provide a lot of efficiencies in a lot of operational areas, and I think that’s something that federal managers should really consider and look at,” Whiteside said.

But with all the evangelizing of cloud’s benefits, are there any downsides?

“There are going to be challenges,” Tombe acknowledged, especially when trying to synch new efforts across an agency’s many moving parts, such as finance and procurement. “so there are definitely challenges, but I wouldn’t say they’re negatives. It’s just a new way of doing business.”