Is Washington ready for cloud computing?

Government representatives at a cloud-computing conference say tight budgets and a Web-friendly president will get Washington on the cloud.

WASHINGTON--Bureaucrats in Washington looking for a silver lining to the economic downturn may want to try looking at the cloud itself.

The financial downturn, momentum from the private sector, and a new Web-savvy administration have come together to create the perfect climate for government adoption of cloud computing , said software as a service vendors, federal information technology purchasers, and others at a cloud-computing conference here Wednesday.

"In 2008, we saw cloud computing move from a curiosity to a concrete option" for government, said Dan Burton, senior vice president of global public policy for Salesforce.com. "In 2009, I think you'll see it move to a mainstream procurement. It's the right model for times like these."

SaaS vendors assured government customers at the conference, hosted by the Software and Information Industry Association, that their reservations about cloud computing are unfounded. Problems related to security, reliability, and scalability have been resolved, said Zach Nelson, the president and CEO of online application provider NetSuite.

Government representatives at a cloud-computing conference Wednesday talked about their positive experiences with software as a service. Stephanie Condon/CNET Networks

Furthermore, Nelson said, SaaS can be deployed faster and is more customizable than traditional software. Beyond that, he said, government employees will eventually simply demand cloud services because they are becoming a central part of daily life.

"All of us live and breathe over the Internet today," Nelson said. "If it works for business, why not for government?"

The rapid adoption of cloud-computing services is self-evident, Nelson said. NetSuite's business this year, for instance, grew 40 percent year over year.

Salesforce.com also saw a 44 percent increase in its year-over-year numbers.

Acumen Solutions, the business and technology firm, announced Wednesday it is launching a dedicated public sector cloud-computing practice. The company aims to help government agencies manage their costs by integrating SaaS solutions from a variety of vendors, including Salesforce.com, Google Enterprise, and Workday.

The challenges that remain for government adoption of cloud computing are data integration and bureaucratic resistance. Part of the resistance in Washington to developments like cloud computing stems from lingering concerns about security .

Perfect security on the cloud is an illusory goal, the conference presenters said, and the vulnerabilities of the cloud will have to be weighed against benefits like reduced costs.

"In an era where there's going to be tight resources, there will be compelling ways to do things more effectively on the IT side," said Ron Ross, the director of security for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. "We have to be able to do that in an environment that is well protected."

NIST is currently working on creating cloud-computing standards for protecting government networks and will finalize the guidelines later this year, Ross said.

When managing data on the cloud, he said, agencies have to consider the sensitivity of the data in question to determine the appropriate security controls to use.

"All data is not created equal," Ross said.

Major Larry Dillard, a program manager in the Army's Office of the Chief Marketing Officer, related how he managed to overcome the Army's resistance to change and its security concerns to adopt cloud-computing services for the Army Experience Pilot Program, a recruiting program.

"All the challenges we've faced have been self-imposed," he said. "We're not putting nuclear launch codes on Salesforce.com, we're putting the street addresses of 17-year-olds."

Dillard said he found a higher officer willing to accept the risk involved as long as modifications were made to make the program more secure, such as keeping information like Social Security numbers off Salesforce.com.

Other government agencies, along with the Army, are taking to the Web to communicate with citizens. That will only increase under the Obama administration, said Dan Chenok, a senior vice president for Pragmatics who was part of the Obama transition team.

Just as the transition Web site Change.gov used social-networking tools to solicit ideas for innovation and let visitors exchange ideas with each other, the Obama-run government is likely to implement more two-way communication with constituents, he said.

"That's a real change for federal employees," Chenok said, "that they don't need to control the information flow for the purpose of their program."

 

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