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White House unveils cloud computing initiative

The effort, aimed at reducing spending on IT infrastructure, cutting environmental impacts, and streamlining government IT, will likely take years to implement.

The administration's cloud computing initiative is getting started immediately, at least in small measure, on the brand-new Web site.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--The Obama administration on Tuesday announced a far-reaching and long-term cloud computing policy intended to cut costs on infrastructure and reduce the environmental impact of government computing systems.

Speaking at NASA's Ames Research Center here, federal CIO Vivek Kundra unveiled the administration's first formal efforts to roll out a broad system designed to leverage existing infrastructure and in the process, slash federal spending on information technology, especially expensive data centers.

According to Kundra, the federal government today has an IT budget of $76 billion, of which more than $19 billion is spent on infrastructure alone. And within that system, he said, the government "has been building data center after data center," resulting in an environment in which the Department of Homeland Security alone, for example, has 23 data centers.

Obama administration CIO Vivek Kundra on Tuesday unveiled the government's new cloud computing initiative. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

All told, this has resulted in a doubling of federal energy consumption from 2000 to 2006. "We cannot continue on this trajectory," Kundra said.

That's why the administration is now committed to a policy of reducing infrastructure spending and instead, relying on existing systems, at least as much as is possible, given security considerations, Kundra said.

As an example of what's possible with cloud computing, Kundra pointed to a revamping of the General Services Administration's site. Using a traditional approach to add scalability and flexibility, he said, it would have taken six months and cost the government $2.5 million a year. But by turning to a cloud computing approach, the upgrade took just a day and cost only $800,000 a year.

But while some of the benefits of the administration's cloud computing initiative are on display today--mainly at the brand new Web site--Kundra's presentation was short on specifics and vague about how long it may take the government to transition fully to its new paradigm.

Indeed, Kundra hinted that it could take as much as a decade to complete the cloud computing "journey."

Three-part initiative
While repeatedly referencing the realities that many government efforts must make allowances in their IT needs for security, Kundra argued strongly that in many other cases, there is little reason that federal agencies cannot turn to online resources for quick, easy, and cheap provisioning of applications.

As a result, the first major element of the initiative is the brand new site, a clearinghouse for business, social media, and productivity applications, as well as cloud IT services. To be sure, the site isn't fully functional yet. In fact, a brief survey of it resulted in a series of error messages. But it's evident that the administration hopes that for many agencies, the site will eventually be a one-stop shop for the kinds of services that to date have required extensive IT spending, and Kundra said he believes that some at the Department of Energy has already been using the site for some of its needs.

The second element of the effort, Kundra said, will be budgeting. For fiscal year 2010, the administration will be pushing cloud computing pilot projects, reflecting the effort's priority and hopes that many lightweight workflows can be moved into the cloud. For fiscal 2011, it will be issuing guidance to agencies throughout government.

Finally, the initiative will include policy planning and architecture that will be made up of centralized certifications, target architecture and security, privacy, and procurement concerns. Kundra said every effort will be made to ensure that data is protected and secure, and that whatever changes are made are "pragmatic and responsible."

Clearly, though, the administration has seen benefits in the way private industry uses cloud computing, and intends to mirror those benefits. Ultimately, he added, the idea is to make it simple for agencies to procure the applications they need. "Why should the government pay for and build infrastructure that may be available for free," Kundra said.

One inspiration, he explained, are advances the government has already seen in the streamlining of student aid application forms. The so-called FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form is "more complicated" than the federal 1040 tax form, Kundra said. But in a joint effort between the IRS and the Department of Education, it has become possible with one click of a mouse button for IRS data to populate the FAFSA form, Kundra said, eliminating more than 70 questions and 20 screens.

That, then, should be the kind of thing that the government seeks to do across the board, ultimately delivering large savings to taxpayers and significantly reducing the environmental impact of government IT systems.