Among the federal government's ambitious cloud computing plans: The Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) intends to move an email service for 7,500 users in 260 office locations to a cloud-hosting solution by 2012. (Agence France-Presse)
Agencies are striking ambitious plans to migrate a host of information technology services to the cloud within a year.
The Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) intends to move an email service for 7,500 users in 260 office locations to a cloud-hosting solution. The Health and Human Services Department's Administration for Children and Families (ACF) plans to deploy a records management service to the cloud. And the Energy Department http://www.energy.gov">will move its main website to a cloud environment to reduce service costs.
In all, agencies across government have identified 78 IT services that they plan to move to the cloud within a year.
That's a big shift in momentum since a year ago, when agencies, plagued by concerns over security, showed little enthusiasm for trusting their IT services to an outsider.
What's changed? For one thing, agencies, under intense pressure from the Office of Management and Budget, are more actively exploring cloud options as they seek to modernize and upgrade their IT operations. And in doing so, some have found compelling cost-savings. But also, OMB has threatened agencies' IT funds unless agencies get off the dime and start moving services to the cloud.
A half-year ago, OMB, which projected at least $5 billion in savings through cloud computing, issued its "cloud first" policy: Agencies must first consider cloud-based services for all their IT needs or risk losing their IT funds for new investments. OMB gave agencies until December to move at least one service to a cloud environment and until June 2012 to move two additional services.
Many agency IT managers are predicting savings:
• ATF predicts that moving its email service to the cloud will cut operational costs by $100 per user per year — or roughly $750,000 — eliminate more than 10 servers, improve scalability, add enterprise collaboration services, add email archiving and increase service reliability.
• ACF estimates its plan to deploy a records management system in the cloud will reduce operating costs by half.
• Energy expects to save $50,000 a year while adding more capability on Energy.gov.
Web hosting for public government websites and email services are among the most common cloud-ready services that agencies have identified so far.
To ensure compliance with its cloud-first policy, OMB will review all requests to determine whether an agency performed the "necessary analysis with regards to evaluating safe, secure cloud computing solutions," OMB spokeswoman Moira Mack said in an email. The review will also include discussions with agency leadership about their analyses and processes for purchasing cloud technologies.
"We are not interested in creating any obstacles to funding," said Kimberly Hancher, chief information officer for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
EEOC notified its top executives and program managers that they must adhere to OMB's cloud-first policy. The agency included cloud initiatives in its 2012 budget submission, but moving to the cloud will depend on funding, Hancher said. If funding is provided for new starts, she would like to transition an electronic fax solution in the cloud. The capability would allow users to send faxes by using a third party to upload files over the Internet and deliver them to a fax machine.
The agency also is anxious to upgrade telecommunication lines at 53 offices across the country. EEOC has upgraded 15 offices, but tight funding has squelched further progress. "I don't have funding right now," Hancher said.
Her office has requested funding to cover the remaining sites, which will allow the agency to ensure optimum and speedy performance of future cloud services.
The Small Business Administration has embraced the cloud-first policy: Its IT governance board must receive three options when looking at new investments, and one of those must be cloud.
At the Veterans Affairs Department, the announcement of OMB's cloud-first policy last December prompted it to scrap plans to bid a contract to modernize its email system for 600,000 users, said VA CIO Roger Baker. VA then issued a new request for information to vendors. Under the project, dubbed "Big 4," VA will have the software and hardware for the email system reside in four contractor-owned and -operated data centers. An award is expected by October.
Even VA's new claims processing system for education benefits has been outsourced to an off-site data center.
Security concerns still at play
But even while agencies are moving more services to the cloud, they still voice fears that cloud services come at the cost of security.
At SBA, for instance, CIO Paul Christy won't consider putting certain highly sensitive databases and applications — such as loan processing systems — on a cloud until he's convinced there are options that can meet federal security standards.
And at the Environmental Protection Agency, CIO Malcolm Jackson said he is considering outsourcing a human resources system to a vendor or agency that can provide the service at a lower cost. But sensitive data or applications are not good candidates for the cloud, Jackson said. "Cloud is still in its earlier stages."
He added there are other considerations, such as determining how interconnected networks will be with multiple vendors and how EPA will navigate through technical problems if applications have to be interoperable and work across all networks.
Despite the unknowns, he said cloud is the right tool for improving productivity and driving efficiencies.
CIOs should be asking, "Why can't we do this through cloud?" VA's Baker said. The policy "is making certain that the CIO's bias is toward considering cloud."