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GSA puts its USA.gov Web site in the cloud

The General Services Administration announced on Monday it will be moving the programs that run the federal government's official Web portal from government servers to those operated by a private company, a strategy known as cloud computing.

USA.gov and its Spanish language companion site, GobiernoUSA.gov, will be hosted and supported by Terremark Worldwide Inc., an information technology infrastructure company based in Miami. The agreement marks one of the federal government's first attempts at shifting computing resources to the cloud.

"This should reduce operating costs by 50 percent," GSA spokesperson Tobi Edler said. "The reason why is cloud computing is extremely flexible, powerful, secure and has unlimited ability to scale up or down depending on what you need."

Cloud computing describes the practice of storing applications on servers owned by an outside company -- the cloud -- instead of the traditional method of storing the applications on the organization's desktop PCs or servers. Because the applications are stored on servers at a central location, it reduces maintenance and processing power costs for a company or agency. An example of cloud computing in the consumer arena is Google's Gmail service for e-mail.

"There's definitely a lot of cost efficiencies built into it," said Xavier Gonzalez, director of corporate communications for Terremark. He said GSA doesn't have to buy new servers, hardware or licenses to run the portals. "If they need more bandwidth or storage, they're able to buy that on a real-time basis," he said.

Terremark will host the Web sites in Culpepper, Va., about 60 miles southwest of Washington, where the company will provide the servers, hardware, bandwidth and back-end maintenance necessary to operate the sites.

GSA began considering using cloud computing in August 2008. Tom Freebairn, acting director of USA.gov technologies in GSA's Office of Citizen Services, said the shift will allow the sites to continue to grow without the need to acquire more hardware or personnel.

"Part of the traditional data center is that you have to buy hardware, find a place to put it, power it, cool it and everything else," he said. "It takes months, even with a facility in place. In the federal government, it may take longer because the contracting process is so difficult."

GSA can now update its configurations and add or subtract servers in real-time, with Terremark provisioning the hardware and handling the transition, Freebairn said. "We can add a server to our needs within 10 minutes from beginning to end," he said.

The systems are set up to automatically increase the amount of capacity for the sites as needed. If agency officials plan to issue an announcement that could drive traffic to the sites, they can notify Terremark to increase server capacity and bandwidth to ensure the sites do not crash under the increased traffic.

"They can double capacity in 10 minutes to automatically handle the spike and then bill us later at the pre-determined rate," Freebairn explained. "We don't have to buy double our rate for the whole year. We are only paying for what we're using. It's literally an on-demand service."

Outsourcing the sites' back-end operations also provides better security, Freebairn said.

Gonzalez said the Culpepper facility is one of the most secure facilities in the country. "We designed it hand in hand with the federal government to meet their demands," he said.

Freebairn said the transition may take six months, but for other agencies the shift to the cloud could be quicker or slower, depending on the agency's needs. He said GSA would serve as an example to help other agencies that might consider the switch.

"Everybody will go through a slightly different process," Freebairn said. "The longest part was identifying what we needed and developing a plan to do that. Then it was convincing [people] and changing the culture and environment."

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