Gathering storm

Cloud computing might be the Internet’s greatest feat yet, but will government latch on?

Cloud computing is officially an information technology industry megatrend.

Every week, another trade publication heralds the new paradigm’s imminent arrival, analysts reports detail its likely effects, and vendors big and small proclaim their expertise in it.

If cloud computing pans out anywhere near expectations, it could be a godsend for federal, state and local government.

Already beset by budget and resource pressures that will surely worsen during the next few years, agencies could use cloud computing to offload expensive IT infrastructure costs and bring the focus back onto core missions.

The promise

IT was supposed to be a transformative force for government, and in many ways, it has been. Government investments in desktop computers, servers, mainframes, networks and sophisticated applications have allowed agencies to greatly increase their efficiency, connect previously fragmented operations and offer more convenient services to the public.

What many officials didn’t understand at the outset of the Information Age was the effort required to keep this complex infrastructure going. The constant need for hardware and software upgrades and, in recent years, the urgent requirement to protect systems and data from attacks have put increasing demands on budgets and IT expertise.

Cloud computing offers an attractive alternative. Precise definitions of cloud computing are elusive, but broadly speaking, the term describes a way of delivering the same kind of IT services and capabilities users get from their own agencies’ infrastructure. However, a service provider owns and maintains the hardware and software, delivering the capabilities to customers via the Internet “cloud” for a set fee.

Solutions such as software as a service (SaaS), which delivers application functionality, and on-demand utility computing, which delivers data processing and storage services, are examples of cloud computing capabilities. According to market research firm Input, anything that can be bought as externally hosted IT hardware, software and desktop services could be classified as cloud computing.

Cost savings are one of the major reasons governments would use cloud computing, because cloud providers could use their greater economies of scale with staff and equipment to deliver their services more cost-effectively. Delivering solutions to users faster is another benefit.

“We’ve seen a 90 percent increase in speed to deployment, along with an 80 percent drop in costs through not having infrastructure to manage,” said Vivek Kundra, chief technology officer for the District of Columbia, who recently began replacing his users’ traditional office productivity desktop software with Google Apps software, the search giant’s SaaS offering.

Other advantages include providing surge capacity for isolated, tactical needs and allowing agencies to scale their infrastructure across time without major capital investment. Thin-on-the-ground IT staff members will also be freed from mundane maintenance tasks to tackle more important issues.

Also, cloud computing is a natural complement to the service-oriented architecture approach much of government is taking to IT, which is more modular and dynamic than traditional systems.

“Clouds are great enablers of SOA,” said Drew Cohen, vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton. “They’re not co-dependent, but if you have both, then both benefit.”

The players

As with any hot IT idea that is generating a buzz, many IT companies are laying claim to being cloud computing players.

But there are a few that stand out, knowledgable observers say.

Online retailer Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) is a cloud computing platform that customers can sign up for through a simple Web interface. Combined with other cloud services that the company offers, such as the Amazon Simple DB database and Amazon Simple Queue Service (SQS), users can build fairly complete solutions in the cloud.

EC2 also might be one of the most robust cloud computing platforms, given that it builds on the huge back-end infrastructure that Amazon developed to drive its e-commerce empire. It officially exited its beta development phase in October 2008, but customers already include the likes of pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and computer-aided design giant Autodesk.

Google is also a high-profile early player in the cloud, primarily through Google Apps, a suite of messaging, collaboration and e-mail security services.

It also offers other online products such as Google App Engine, which allows people to develop their own applications and run them on Google’s infrastructure, and Google Base, an online site where people can store content and that Google makes searchable through its own search engine.

IBM’s stake in the new arena is named IBM Blue Cloud. Unlike most of the other early cloud players — but true to its historical tilt toward big organization IT — IBM Blue Cloud is aimed squarely at the large enterprise, allowing various large data centers to be tied together so they appear to users as a single resource.

Sun Microsystems has also emerged as a player in cloud computing, but it’s efforts aimed more at the services developer rather than as a provider of the services.

And then there’s Microsoft. The company’s early play in cloud computing has been through hosted versions of its server- based e-mail and collaboration software and its Office Live applications for small businesses.

However, the future evolution of Windows Azure might decide Microsoft’s eventual effect. Introduced in October, Azure is the company’s stab at producing an operating system for the cloud, similar to what Windows does for the desktop. As such, Azure is regarded as a direct competitor to Amazon EC2 and the Google App Engine.

Reality check

Meanwhile, there are significant barriers to the use of cloud computing in government.

Security and privacy are at the top of the list, said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting.

Many government executives prefer to keep their IT resources in-house because they think that gives them better control over access and security. Giving that control to the cloud could increase the potential dangers, though given the security apparatus many cloud computing companies have put together, that’s increasingly unlikely, some analysts say.

“The challenge is still on the vendors to demonstrate that organizations don’t need to run things in their own data centers and workstations to feel secure,” Suss said.

Trust is another issue. The government has spent the last 30 years promoting the value of the desktop, so trusting that the cloud will be there whenever people need it is an attitude that will take some time to develop, said John Shea, director of information policy and integration in the Defense Department’s CIO office.

Unanswered questions also surround how cloud computing will work with existing agency infrastructures and IT business processes.

For these reasons, observers say there are few agencies that will move quickly to cloud computing. Cloud services could eventually deliver the office productivity and communications applications that 80 percent of government users will need, they say, but agencies will start cautiously by experimenting mostly with noncritical areas first. A hybrid infrastructure involving both in-house systems and services and cloud computing will remain in place for a long time.

“They’ll ease into it,” said Jim Flyzik, a consultant and a former federal CIO.