Microsoft officials are trying to dispel the myth that federal agencies must scrap legacy information technology systems so they can move to Web-based, or cloud, computing. Recovery.gov, one of the government's most visited -- and data-intensive -- Web sites, may be ready to enter the cloud, said company executives, who met with Nextgov for an interview.
Cloud computing provides Internet access to software programs, or even hardware, that are hosted at an off-site data center. The hosting company, not the paying customer, owns the software and IT infrastructure. President Obama's fiscal 2010 federal information technology budget encourages agencies to convert to cloud computing platforms to cut costs.
"It's an evolution of the industry," said Susie Adams, chief technology officer for federal civilian agencies at Microsoft, referring to the logical progression of technologies that government has been using for the past decade.
Arlington County, Va., and New Jersey Transit have operated IT systems in the cloud for years under various monikers such as software-as-a-service, subscription-based software and hosted software. The Defense Department chose a software subscription model in 2008 from provider Avue Technologies to support recruitment, hiring and staffing operations.
And transitioning does not require overhauling all computer programs and hardware. "The first entree from a transparency perspective is to put publicly available data into the cloud. That's the least risky," Adams said.
She expects some cloud computing providers will bid on a contract to redesign Recovery.gov, the official site for tracking stimulus funds. "They could put the entire application in the cloud, but my guess is that it will be a part of the application," Adams said.
To ensure Microsoft remains a player in the growing cloud market, company officials are developing software that is interoperable, or able to exchange information among multiple systems and services. "It's all about choices," she said. "It's going to be a hybrid world."
Agencies can draw savings from adding functions, such as procurement, to their existing Internet-based programs or opt to launch something new into the cloud, said Jean Paoli, Microsoft's general manager of interoperability strategy.
Interoperable, web-based services also can make it easier for the government to interact with citizens. White House officials and e-government specialists say mobile devices are the next frontier for public outreach. Digital pens, handheld devices and cell phones will be entryways into government services, they say.
"I've seen quite a bit of work in Microsoft research that hasn't been productized [yet], but that is well under way," said Craig Shank, general manager of Microsoft's interoperability group.