Federal officials say shift to cloud computing is inevitable

Strategy will help agencies save money in the face of escalating IT maintenance costs.

Rapidly increasing information technology maintenance costs will force the federal government to move to cloud computing, agency officials said on Thursday.

Infrastructure costs eat up about half the government's $70 billion annual IT budget, said Casey Coleman, chief information officer for the General Services Administration, during an Association for Federal Information Resources Management panel discussion. This means agencies can't afford not to invest in cloud solutions, which are computer applications and data that are hosted on an external server, she said. More attention must be paid to areas where the government has successfully implemented cloud solutions and best practices must be shared, she added.

Radha Sekhar, assistant deputy undersecretary of Defense comptroller for financial management, agreed that the current trajectory for IT spending is unsustainable, and added the appropriations process makes piloting innovative technologies a tough sell. She said it is crucial for chief information officers to educate chief financial officers and Capitol Hill staffers on the savings potential of technology investments.

"These are investments the government has to make, otherwise the costs of computing will be very high," Sekhar said. "There are no limits, especially in the defense budget. If we don't have innovative, smart technical solutions, the budget will keep growing."

Panel members emphasized that cloud computing would be a viable business strategy only if it were adopted governmentwide.

"Without scale and a lot of it, this is not going to be economical," said Doug Bourgeois, director of the Interior Department's National Business Center.

But panelists noted cultural and procedural obstacles to the approach. Numerous security and continuity of operations regulations restricting federal IT procurements make it difficult for agencies to adopt cloud computing, Coleman said.

"Dialogue between industry and government is critical here," she said. "We're talking about a transformational approach. We've got a working group from the CIO Council trying to reach out and understand issues like how can service levels be guaranteed, how can we [complete 2002 Federal Information Security Management Act] certification?"

Commercial service providers are not necessarily attuned to government's unique requirements and a lack of acquisition and technical expertise will hinder oversight of cloud solutions, said Chris Kemp, chief information officer for NASA's Ames Research Center.

Sekhar expressed some skepticism about the Pentagon's ability to adopt cloud computing quickly. "We're supposed to be defending the country, we can't change our business processes," she said. All IT solutions should be sold as business solutions, with explanations of how they will help an agency meet its mission, she said. That approach will help agencies pitch IT projects successfully during the budgeting process, she added.

"Federal organizations are setting up a lot of training courses, but [cloud computing] is a long haul," Sekhar said.