Inside each container at the Microsoft Chicago Data Center Container Bay are 1,800 to 2,500 servers. Microsoft has data centers worldwide that manage cloud computing services. (MICROSOFT CORP.)
Agencies are looking at cloud computing for more than just outsourcing their data center operations.
They're also exploring how cloud computing — where agencies rent access from another vendor or agency to servers, storage and applications over the Internet, rather than owning and maintaining systems themselves — can help agencies modernize their outdated information technology systems.
The General Services Administration's Office of Citizen Services and Communications has used cloud computing to run usa.gov, the government's main Web site, since May.
GSA formerly ran usa.gov off a 10-year old "onerous" system, said David McClure, associate administrator of GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Communications. The system ran on outdated, proprietary software and frequently "acted up" when programmers needed to make updates, he said.
"We had to reboot it all anytime we needed to make a change," he said.
Now IT personnel can make changes to the Web site in minutes instead of coding and updating the old system over a series of days, McClure said.
Terremark Federal hosts usa.gov at its secure data center in Culpeper, Va. Terremark uses green technologies that lower energy costs, such as using diesel generators for backup power. When it's cold outside, Terremark pumps naturally chilled water in to cool its data centers, said Bruce Hart, the company's chief operating officer.
"It's rare that the federal government leads in innovation, but in the world of cloud computing it's been true," said Hart, a former deputy chief information officer at the CIA.
GSA used another contractor, Aquilent, to design usa.gov's move to the cloud. Mark Pietrasanta, the Laurel, Md.-based company's chief technology officer, estimates usa.gov is consuming 75 percent less energy by running on newer, more efficient cloud computing servers.
"If the federal government as a whole — every agency — does this, this can have a significant impact on electrical usage," Pietrasanta said.
Switching to the cloud also reduced the number of machines needed to run the site. GSA had 30 servers in a primary data center and 15 in a backup center, but now they're using three servers in the cloud.
Switching the Web site to the cloud saved $1.7 million in energy and systems maintenance costs over the past year, McClure said.
Costs of cloud computing can vary wildly, ranging from thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, depending on how much space an agency uses in the cloud.
GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Communications is considering other cloud uses, McClure said. It already operates several programs in the cloud using various vendors, including an open-government platform.
The office's IdeaScale software, an open-government platform for agencies, is hosted on the cloud, McClure said. The forum will be free to agencies, allowing them to strike up conversations with the public about transparency and open government, helping agencies comply with President Obama's open-government directive.
By using the cloud, the government was able to launch IdeaScale months quicker than it would have been able to on its own, McClure said.
A cloud computing feature, Platform-as-a-Service, allows developers to test, develop, host and maintain applications in the cloud. This allows developers to launch and modify programs quicker than if they were setting up the infrastructure and systems themselves.
"Now the hardest part is coming up with what to ask," Pietrasanta said.
The Labor Department moved its main financial management system to a cloud run by Global Computer Enterprises in January. The New Core Financial Management System was 20 years old and running on COBOL.
GCE declined to comment on how much the Labor Department is paying for its services. Labor officials declined to comment for this article.
The system needed a major overhaul, but the Labor Department effort failed because of its complexities, said Pothiraj Selvaraj, CIO of GCE, based in Reston, Va.
Labor was spending $6 million a year on mainframe energy and maintenance costs, Selvaraj said. Now they'll be spending $500,000 a year for the next seven years, the planned duration of the cloud project, he said.
Labor's building had to be cooled to 40 degrees to keep the old mainframes running. GCE's cloud servers are newer and can run at room temperature, Selvaraj said.
Managers must recognize that employees may feel threatened by a change as radical as cloud computing.
Pietrasanta said Aquilent worked with GSA's managers to explain how cloud computing works and how it can free up workers. Instead of 30 to 40 employees spending all day maintaining old systems and patching together failing servers, they can instead work on programming new systems and innovation.
"[The employees] didn't like what their job was, but they didn't want that job to go away. … Now they can learn new technologies instead of crisis control," Pietrasanta said.