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Cloud computing could help agencies track stimulus funds

The information technology industry is pushing federal agencies to consider a business practice of sharing software applications to manage stimulus funds and to report the results of those expenditures.

The recommendation to use cloud computing comes at a time when the Obama administration is asking vendors for ideas on how to improve Recovery.gov, the government's home page for tracking and displaying recovery data from federal, state and local recipients. The Office of Management and Budget released guidance on April 3 that offers insight into reporting requirements and positions cloud computing as a solution as well, vendors said.

Cloud computing refers to sharing software among colleagues via the Internet, rather than storing the applications in a large database on an in-house computer server. Typically, cloud vendors sell agencies access to common business applications such as customer relationship management systems that are downloaded from the Internet and viewed on a Web browser. Agencies pay for subscriptions to the software.

In a so-called cloud, officials with the Education Department, who are doling out money authorized under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to states, could share information at the local, state and federal levels. Schools receiving funds would have access to the Web-based system to enter student performance metrics so the federal government and taxpayers could see the impact of stimulus investments.

Robert Dolan, an IBM global government solutions executive, said the company has a package poised to support Recovery.gov that takes into consideration the April 3 reporting and tracking guidance.

"OMB is looking for one centralized solution that is going to handle the reporting requirements that are laid out under the act," he said. "The intent is to issue the [request for proposals] at some point."

IBM is not aware of any agency customers currently using cloud computing for stimulus work.

Many agencies today are using existing IT management systems or spreadsheets to track stimulus funds, Dolan said.

Web-based databases often raise data security concerns. Even with applications that are designed to be transparent, such as stimulus reporting systems, some information must be kept confidential. Data on students with disabilities may be one example.

"When you talk to customers they are very concerned about data integrity, data security, that it is being used in a way that it is not intended to be used for," Dolan said.

Some security professionals said agencies should demand vendors provide details about the security measures in their cloud offerings before buying a package. "Cloud computing is not inherently dangerous if it is implemented properly," with a risk assessment and controls, such as authorization, secure coding and encryption, said Paul Proctor, a Gartner vice president who covers IT risk management. "Many cloud failures have been due to simple bugs, bad administration and a lack of baseline controls."

To address security concerns agencies can designate segments of the data as private or accessible only to authorized users that have passcodes, IBM officials said.

Currently, agencies should develop plans for a cloud-computing strategy, but avoid making hasty buying decisions, said Robert Ames, director and deputy chief technology officer for IBM Federal. "You could use cloud computing now, but you might regret it if you went to a provider that was not interoperable with a system that the government settles on" for Recovery.gov, he said.

Consulting firm Acumen Solutions this week introduced a cloud computing package built on subscription-based software from Salesforce.com, which comes preloaded with agency-specific grant and expenditure data. It is not intended to interface with Recovery.gov.

The system aims to help agencies award stimulus funds and monitor those funds, faster, Acumen officials said, adding that the primary goal of the act is to spend funds quickly. Acumen promises to outfit an agency with a customized application, training and consulting services within 30 days.

"The advantage of cloud computing is speed and fewer upfront costs," said Donita Prakash, Acumen's chief marketing officer. The start-up cost for the basic service is about $100,000 per agency, plus monthly subscription fees based on the number of users.

Separately, Microsoft on Monday will launch a cloud application for data collection that can help agencies search through and validate the incoming morass of state and local information. Microsoft officials say the product could potentially cost nothing to agencies that already use the company's Web-based SharePoint software.

"The biggest challenge . . . is the only [OMB reporting] requirements to date are very simple. People are waiting to see what that guidance is before they move to that system, because it's a moving target," said Susie Adams, chief technology officer for Microsoft Federal.

Dan Israel, a product marketing manager for Google's federal group, advises agencies contemplating the approach to first test their comfort with the technology on one component of the stimulus bill. For example, an Education official interested in tracking the number of schools that have received money for online courseware could import purchasing data from states into a Google mapping application to see which schools have yet to use funds.

"Given that we're in a very tight budget situation, looking to the cloud is a very cost-effective means of bringing new technologies into the government," Israel said. "By moving to cloud computing, we can also help government IT get out of the business of using and managing servers and focusing instead on more mission-critical technology projects in their agencies."

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