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Agencies predicted to move to cloud computing cautiously

The federal government's use of Web-based software applications will expand significantly during the Obama administration, according to a report released on Tuesday.

The federal government's use of cloud computing, which are Web-based software applications and services that users temporarily download to their computers, is projected to expand to more than $800 million by 2013, a 20 percent annual growth rate, reported market research firm INPUT, based in Reston, Va.

Rather than purchase hardware, servers and software licenses to run applications, agencies would log on to a Web-based platform to access software applications stored on remote servers, which is referred to as the cloud.

Most of the growth in cloud computing would come from vendors providing software as a service, while a third of the increase would come from storage and remote data centers, said Deniece Peterson, principal analyst at INPUT. Among the advantages of cloud applications are lower IT costs and the need for fewer employees to maintain equipment and applications.

"Primarily the way the government makes their entry into cloud computing is with software applications," Peterson said. "We're seeing significant growth in the application area. They are the kind of horizontal applications any department can use," including programs that manage payroll, billing and other common administrative tasks.

Government has been slow to adopt cloud computing, mostly because of the concerns about security, she said. Most agencies use internal clouds, where employees can access programs, but the network remains closed to anyone outside the organization.

Vivek Kundra, federal chief information officer, and Aneesh Chopra, recently appointed chief technology officer, are advocates of cloud computing, which should drive the adoption of the practice among agencies. As CTO for the District of Columbia, Kundra adopted consumer technologies such as Google Apps for official use and said, "The cloud will do for government what the Internet did in the '90s."

Chopra told Nextgov in March that he saw cloud computing as the future of electronic health records, allowing physicians and health care providers to adopt the format without investing in hardware and software licenses.

Peterson said agencies will hesitate embracing consumer cloud technologies because they are concerned about security, but she predicted government will begin to adopt internal agency clouds. The National Science Foundation and the Defense Information Systems Agency have taken the lead.

"They're pushing the boundaries of what you can do, but keeping it internal," Peterson said. "I think market players have a significant role in how the government will embrace cloud computing. If they can build a robust security suite to accompany these applications . . . that will do a lot to drive the market."

The biggest challenge to agencies adopting cloud computing is educating federal employees about the benefits, Peterson added. "We're hearing anecdotally that not a lot of government employees know what the cloud is," she said. "They're doing it, but don't know it. IT is often a people issue rather than technology. You need cultural buy-in from employees to do something differently."

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