Cloud computing offers dot-gov agencies real benefits, including speed, ease of use, and cost, says David Kralik, director of Internet strategy at Newt Gingrich's American Solutions advocacy group.
Declan McCullaghFormer Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
It's all too common for people to criticize government inefficiency, but rare to hear suggestions that the solution is for government to get its head into the clouds.
I'm talking about cloud computing, a transformational technology being embraced by the private sector because of its promise for enormous productivity gains and reduced costs.
Cloud computing has three basic characteristics: capabilities are
accessed over the Internet, housed in an off-site data
center, and paid for on a subscription basis. This new model delivers
computing applications as a utility, similar to electricity or telephone
service. Many applications including e-mail, office document
productivity, data storage, and customer databases are moving in this
direction because of the opportunity to eliminate the need to buy,
maintain, or upgrade information technology systems. But sadly, outdated
bureaucratic rules and regulations prevent the federal government from
fully being able to embrace and reap the benefits of this technology.
The first benefit is cost. Three separate independent studies conducted
in 2004 (Gartner Group, the Yankee Group, and Morgan Stanley Research),
all suggested that the cost of cloud computing over three to five years
is almost half the cost of similar non-cloud solutions. The federal
government spent $64.4 billion on information technology in FY 2008,
much of which could be reduced had it adopted a model that replaces
significant capital expenses for hardware and upfront license fees for
a system of renewable per-user subscriptions. This also brings more
predictability and stability in future cost outlays and allows for
scaling on demand.
The second benefit is speed. Again, because cloud applications are
delivered via the Internet, deployment can be done instantly and
simultaneously to thousands of users in different locations around the
world. Cloud applications are also regularly updated, which can
alleviate the constant challenge that government institutions face in
being behind on the latest security or upgrade.
A final benefit is ease of use. If you use applications developed by
Amazon, Google, or Salesforce.com you are already using applications
delivered over the cloud. These applications are easy and intuitive and
hold a lot promise for streamlining government if its services operated
on similar efficiency. If the government of the District of Columbia can
find a way to incorporate things like Google Apps into their operations,
shouldn't the federal government be able to do the same?
The lack of those three benefits is what often results
in many classic failed government IT projects like the FBI's 2003
decision to terminate its Virtual Case File (VCF) management system.
After spending $170 million--a number itself way over budget--the FBI
still doesn't have a system to track criminal activity that could
prevent terrorist attacks at home, although a replacement is expected
this year at a cost of over $425 million.
The VCF failure was more than just a failure of contractors; it was a
failure of the type of technology (proprietary, software-based systems)
that is now past its prime. In addition to helping solve homeland
security challenges, cloud computing could also improve congressional
constituent management systems and help reduce voter registration fraud.
With enormous benefits like these, one has to wonder: why isn't the
government fully embracing cloud computing now? Two key reasons can be
Congress spends millions to support a proprietary
in-house data infrastructure system at the Ford House Office Building.
They do this on the theory that so long as the data is physically housed
at a certain location, it can be protected from search and seizure. The
same theory holds for data protection from congressional subpoenas when
an administration evokes executive privilege. But if Congress can
update age-old rules like the 1775 Franking Privilege for a specific
technology (YouTube, as they did in October of 2008) why can't it pass
a law to allow for greater business efficiency while ensuring that
government data remains protected?
The second concern is security. The theory here is that because
one cannot physically see where data are stored remotely and the
fact that the applications are accessed over the Internet, they must be
insecure. But economies of scale are allowing for more sophisticated,
state-of-the-art security, disaster recovery, and service reliability
features than any individual institution can deploy on its own.
Specifically on disaster recovery, there is significant risk in the
event of natural disaster of data being housed in one location.
But cloud computing allows for safeguards so that
only authorized users can access remotely stored data. This could have
prevented the serious breach of privacy such as in October of 2008 when
the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported that personal data on
over 26 million veterans was compromised from a stolen laptop.
The move from mainframe computing to microprocessor was a major
transformational change in information technology, as was the transition
from punch cards to software and the invention of the Internet. A fourth
major transformational shift is occurring right now as software is
replaced with "software as a service," which can significantly improve
government operations, lower cost, and move government into the 21st
century. As we begin a new session of Congress and new presidential
administration, it's time to give this technology serious consideration.
As the single largest purchaser of information technology, government
could benefit from this if only it would get its head out of the
sand and into the clouds.