The US Military Buys a Huge Amount of Cloud Storage

The US government has not made the progress that we had hoped to see in moving major systems to private and public clouds. Despite a “Cloud First” strategy, there seems to be interest, but a lacking desire to get by the first few steps to the cloud.

Challenges for governments and the public cloud

The UK government published its long-awaited Government Cloud Strategy (PDF) at the end of last month as part of the broader Government ICT Strategy launched in March. The strategy has many parallels to similar initiatives from the U.S. federal government, and it promises “to robustly adopt a public cloud solution first policy.” However, it remains to be seen whether any government will really be able to follow through on adopting public cloud solutions.
Like any large organization, governments deal with complex, aging and unwieldy IT infrastructure. Matters are further complicated by the structure of the national government itself: Strict policies — and even laws — require some data to be shared among systems (for example, in the case of child protection) and explicitly prohibit reuse in other cases, such as when a citizen’s rights could be infringed on.
A growing number of these systems are customer-facing, with the notional design requirement that they be accessible to anyone, regardless of ability, familiarity with computers, etc. Tax returns, for example, are increasingly submitted online. Websites that are less demanding on infrastructure but more widely applicable (at least in the UK, where not everyone has to file a tax return) let citizens tax their cars, renew their passports or book consultations with their doctors. All of these require infrastructure, software and more. But each tends to be designed, specified, procured and run independently from any other government system.
The cloud strategy’s introduction acknowledges some of the issues raised by this complex environment:

The current ICT estate makes it difficult to:

  • achieve large, cross government economies of scale
  • deliver ICT systems that are flexible and responsive to demand in order to support government policies and strategies
  • take advantage of new technologies in order to deliver faster business benefits and reduce costs
  • meet environmental and sustainability targets
  • procure in a way that encourages a dynamic and responsive supplier marketplace and supports emerging suppliers.

The document then goes on to suggest ways in which cloud computing will help to tackle each of these pain points, using public cloud solutions first and falling back on “a private G cloud” where necessary.
Strategically, the aspirations laid out in this latest document are bold, and initially they appear to be both sensible and obvious. However, significant technological, cultural, procedural and legislative obstacles are merely touched upon. For example, in responding to “high levels of duplication, silos of infrastructure, fragmented and often inappropriate provision and low levels of server utilisation,” the document simply suggests an intention to “consolidate and rationalize the existing ICT provision,” which means closing data centers and even forcing previously independent IT operations to share hardware. There can be few government IT professionals who could object to consolidating and rationalizing IT infrastructure, but it is also easy to provide justifications (typically security or legacy requirements) for almost all of the decisions that led to that lack of consolidation in the first place.
Government seeks — and needs — efficiency, cost-effectiveness and agility. These are certainly attributes often closely associated with the cloud but rarely with large public institutions. The language of the strategy, with its talk of central “mandating and control,” and a “Foundation Delivery Partner Programme” in which lead agencies drive “federated commodity services” across government, uncomfortably straddles the two worlds. A strategy like this could create an environment in which innovators are given the tools — and the permissions — they need to build applications and services that reduce costs, increase efficiency and actually meet the needs of citizens. The speed of delivery and the level of innovation displayed by alpha.gov.uk is an example of what might be possible when the constraints are slackened.
On the other hand, the strategy could also do the exact opposite, defining a set of binding rules and contracts that drive costs down in the short term but limit flexibility and choice in ways that ultimately limit government’s ability to respond to new challenges.

Question of the week

Government wishes to be more nimble and cost-effective in its provision of IT. Does simply embracing the cloud achieve this?

Beyond the data center: transitioning government to the cloud

This week UK Ministry of Justice official Martin Bellamy addressed concerns that the UK government has become less enthusiastic about a government cloud, saying, “We are expecting to be able to demonstrate that moving to a cloud model is going to allow us to save substantial amounts of money.”

Government officials in the UK and the U.S. talk enthusiastically about the money to be saved moving to the cloud, and the promise of agility offers great benefits in transforming processes. However, government moves slowly, and government IT projects do not have a good record of delivery on time and within budget. Can government really gain the same benefits as consumers and the commercial sector, or will specification creep, vested interests and perceived security requirements conspire to deliver a government cloud that more closely resembles the existing systems it is meant to replace than the commercial cloud solutions it was meant to emulate?

In the U.S., initiatives such as “cloud-first” policy are increasingly significant, although the recent resignation of CIO Vivek Kundra has been a distraction. Federal agencies are trying to save money, closing 800 data centers by 2015 and actively identifying processes and applications that can move to the cloud. New services such as apps.gov will ease the transition, offering commercial applications suitable for government use. Commercial providers, too, are pursuing this $80 billion opportunity. Amazon launched AWS GovCloud in August to address federal government access restrictions, and this week it announced accreditation under the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA).

Back in the UK, there is enthusiasm for a similar model of consolidating infrastructure, harmonizing applications and driving cost savings throughout the machinery of government.

The challenge will be managing short-term costs associated with mothballing data centers and properly equipping the remainder to take on additional workloads. While data center consolidation is meant to save money, there will be a need to spend in the next few years in order to realize those savings over the long term. In the past the UK has ring-fenced funds to support short-term spending, and something similar will probably be required as part of the forthcoming G-Cloud delivery strategy.

Potential cost savings attract headlines, but the larger opportunity is agility. Bellamy recognizes this, with Computing quoting him: “Government also wants flexibility and freedom to change . . . In the future we want the marketplace to be more dynamic, where we can buy up services with shorter duration commitments and if a better service comes along, we are able to switch to it.”

There are already examples in which government departments embrace a cloud-based approach. Enterprise cloud collaboration provider Huddle attracted headlines over the summer when it secured a contract with FCO Services in the UK. Huddle’s SaaS collaboration system is now certified to support government officials’ collaborating in the cloud on sensitive information, and the partnership between Huddle and FCO Services represents a model for deployment that should prove replicable. Kable analyst Chris Pennell was quoted by ZDNet, noting that “the ability to offer [secure] services to the public sector is a big step in the ability of [government] to use cloud-based services.”

The Huddle example demonstrates a willingness on the part of government to adopt existing commercial software solutions and put them to work, rather than repeating previous mistakes and procuring essentially bespoke and expensive software solutions from companies like Accenture.

It remains to be seen whether the same lightweight approach will continue to be repeated, but publication of the UK’s delivery strategy next month will certainly provide a far clearer indication of the direction in which one government intends to move.

Question of the week

Do you think governments will be able to effectively use the cloud?

Today in Cloud

Amazon rolled out a new region for their public cloud computing service yesterday; physically located on the west coast of the United States and featuring additional checks to ensure that only U.S. citizens may gain access. The new GovCloud (US) Region is intended to meet the needs of state and federal government agencies, and it was interesting to note Jeff Barr’s claim that little additional effort was required to meet government’s requirements; “Other than the restriction to US persons and the requirement that EC2 instances are launched within a VPC, we didn’t make any other changes to our usual operational systems or practices. In other words, the security profile of the existing Regions was already up to the task of protecting important processing and data. In effect, we simply put a gateway at the door — ‘Please show your passport or green card before entering.'” Amazon is keen to explore offering similar services to other governments, and this relatively lightweight approach of layering logical regions on top of Amazon’s existing physical infrastructure may offer a cost-effective means to appear to meet the niche requirements of government… and a whole host of regulated industries. Which will be next? AWS GovCloud (UK), or AWS FinanceCloud ? Companies like IBM, which have explicitly set out to build and deploy different clouds for different verticals, must be watching closely.

Today in Cloud

Business Insider’s Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry takes a rather dim view of this story in yesterday’s La Tribune, sarcastically concluding that “We don’t see how anything can go wrong with this. Stimulus funds, consortia, huge corporations going out of their core competencies, French government and union meddling and big buzzwords like cloud computing.” The French government certainly does appear more willing than most to put the state’s muscle behind big projects, especially when it feels that the country’s cultural values are threatened by anglophone (mostly American, these days) dominance over markets. In this case, though, the idea may have some merit. A national need, combined with perfectly respectable competencies inside some of the country’s biggest companies? Gobry is certainly right that plenty could go wrong, but this project deserves watching as it takes shape.

Today in Cloud

London-based Software as a Service provider Huddle has secured a contract to provide their cloud-based document collaboration solution to the UK Government. The Financial Times notes that “the company was chosen… over much larger IT companies, such as Microsoft and Google, partly because its servers are located only in the UK and could theoretically be easier to protect physically from any outside attack.” Importantly, the deal sees Huddle formally accredited to handle confidential material classified as “Restricted,” challenging the widely held belief that cloud solutions are not sufficiently secure.