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USA.gov's successful shift to cloud computing could become the model

Story updated on Sept. 30, 2009.

The transition of the federal Web portal USA.gov to the cloud, where a vendor maintains the infrastructure and applications, has been successful enough that the General Services Administration is considering the same approach for sites such as Data.gov, according to a new case study from Forrester Research.

According to the study by James Staten, principal analyst at Forrester, GSA has achieved significant cost savings by transitioning USA.gov to an outside platform operated by Terremark Worldwide, an infrastructure and cloud services provider based in Miami. Staten did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

"GSA said this migration to the cloud has brought about a number of benefits and savings, such as avoiding idle server costs while still accommodating huge traffic spikes, acting on users' requests in real time and applying security constraints atop this platform," Staten wrote. A GSA spokeswoman said the annual cost of maintaining USA.gov in the cloud is $800,000 compared with $2.5 million before the transition. The earlier figure included hardware costs, which now are the responsibility of the vendor.

"We were in a situation where our infrastructure required a lot of staff resources to maintain it everyday," said Martha Dorris, deputy associate administrator for the Office of Citizen Services, which maintains USA.gov. "[Moving to the cloud] freed up resources, which we have used to upgrade our content management system to give us the ability to incorporate new functionalities and features on USA.gov to make the citizen's experience the best it can be."

The infrastructure flexibility is crucial because USA.gov receives approximately 342,000 visits on any given day and traffic fluctuates significantly depending on external events. Staten wrote that those spikes in traffic have overwhelmed the system in the past, though Dorris disputed that notion. She said GSA recently purchased additional space in the cloud to create a mirror image of the site in case the original goes down.

"For instance, when unemployment statistics are released or during a hurricane, traffic varies substantially," Staten wrote. "To accommodate these spikes, GSA procured hardware that for the most part sat idle -- needlessly wasting power."

Moving USA.gov has helped solve that issue by allowing GSA to purchase server capacity as needed, a practice known as "bursting." USA.gov set a baseline capacity in its 12-month contract, while additional capacity is billed at a predetermined rate. According to Staten, some of the most successful cloud deployments have involved Web applications with similarly unpredictable traffic patterns, which are best-suited to the on-demand pricing structure.

The new format has made it much easier to upgrade the Web site. The GSA spokeswoman said upgrades used to take six months. Under the cloud model, they generally take one day.

"People talk about this in terms of technology, but it's not really a technology issue. It's a cultural issue," Dorris said. "It was a big change for the technical staff that worked in this environment. We took a lot of time and effort to make people feel comfortable."

GSA has moved USA.gov, its Spanish counterpart GobiernoUSA.gov and WebContent.gov, its guide for federal Web managers, to the cloud. The agency plans to transition its blog, GovGab, and is actively encouraging other agencies to consider moving their public-facing Web sites to cloud hosting solutions.

"Governmentwide this is a great opportunity for agencies to take advantage and save some of the IT infrastructure money spent on low-risk Web sites," Dorris said. "It's publicly available information anyway, and it's a great direction and vision for us to be moving toward."

The next major site to make the transition could be Data.gov, which provides thousands of government data feeds. The site is hosted by Terremark under the same contract GSA is using for USA.gov. But according to GSA, that situation is temporary. Officials managing Data.gov are evaluating their options, but they are expected to continue using the Terremark infrastructure while working out their own contract with the vendor.

Other benefits of the cloud Staten cited are the short time frame needed for migration and the range of security features offered by infrastructure-as-a-service vendors. USA.gov was able to transition to the cloud in only 10 days, with one additional weekend of testing. GSA added a number of its own security elements to the cloud environment, including multifactor authentication, 128-bit encryption for traffic and packet flow analysis.

Correction
USA.gov receives approximately 342,000 visits on any given day, according to the General Services Administration. Forrester Research cited 100 million visits each day in the report referenced for this story.

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