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For records management, agencies see clouds in the forecast

Sep. 15, 2011 - 06:00AM   |  
By AL KARR   |   Comments

The State Department wanted to make tens of thousands of foreign affairs-related historical documents, publications and data sets more accessible to the public, and 50 databases more available to its employees worldwide.

It did so on the cloud, a move intended to reduce the need for maintaining data on costly, energy-inefficient agency-owned servers. The decision also fit the Office of Management and Budget's cloud-first policy, which requires every department and independent agency to move three information technology projects to the cloud, the first by December, the other two by June.

Two of State's projects involve records management, and both were completed earlier this year. The Office of the Historian's stash of documents">is available to the public on a cloud hosted by The Ralph Bunche Electronic Library of data can be accessed by employees at any location worldwide on a cloud hosted by ExLibris, a company that provides library automation services.

Scalability the ability to ramp up use of the clouds at times of peak demand and to cut down to only what's needed at other times is a "significant value" of cloud computing, said Ken Rogers, director of information technology strategy at the department.

Records management also is a key consideration when choosing any cloud service, Rogers said. Data on the cloud must meet a wide range of National Archives and Records Administration requirements, such as being able to transfer archival records to NARA; preserve functionality, integrity and links with electronic indexes, called metadata; and delete temporary records according to NARA-approved retention schedules.

Agencies have identified 78 systems they will move to the cloud to comply with OMB's cloud-first policy, and many of them involve records management.

For example:

The Office of Personnel Management is looking to the cloud to improve its document management system, for correspondence tracking and document review.

"Moving records management to the cloud will provide OPM an opportunity to save money on the operating costs of the underlying systems," said Matthew Perry, OPM's chief information officer. Also, the move "provides us an opportunity to rethink how we handle records management today," he said.

The Transportation Department is focused on two projects with records management implications. A cloud-based Geospatial Information System platform makes available at least 30 transportation-related data sets through maps and other tools. Users can download data and use it in their own applications. And a content management system will help standardize content for Transportation websites and reduce the time and cost of their development. One website is being migrated to the new system this year, and three more are expected to be in 2012.

The department was already working on the transition of all of its records management to the cloud before the OMB initiative.

"We need only pay for the capacity of computer services that we require at any ... time, and can rapidly adapt to changing circumstances," spokesman Bill Adams said.

The Energy Department is developing a single grants management system to be used by its 30-plus offices involved in processing thousands of grant applications every year. This "will provide greater flexibility and efficiency, including the ability to scale storage space dynamically," spokeswoman Niketa Kumar said.


But switching records management to cloud computing has its own challenges. For example, agencies want to ensure they maintain control of their own records, ensure privacy and security for sensitive data and information, guarantee availability and optimum performance of data, and ensure easy movement of data from and to other systems. As they do with all records, agencies must ensure their records on the cloud follow NARA instructions, OMB circulars and laws. Guidance for cloud computing, in NARA Bulletin 2010-05, published last December, includes a "terms of service" clause that agencies can insert in contracts with vendors, to ensure records' integrity and agency control even if the contractor goes out of business.

Industry lacks technical standards for maintaining records in a cloud, said Arian Ravanbakhsh, electronic records policy specialist at NARA. "It's really early to make any pronouncements about the value of cloud computing [whether] it's good for records [or] bad for records."

Craig Rhinehart, director of products and strategy for IBM's enterprise content management division, expects agencies, as they launch cloud projects, to be more sophisticated than the private sector in managing records in the cloud thanks to NARA's guidelines. Companies typically just use the cloud for storage, without dealing with such considerations as how to dispose of data that is no longer useful, Rhinehart said.

Along with technical challenges, such as integrating records management with other systems in the cloud, agencies must address the limited, though improving, customization of cloud services and agreements to meet the business needs of the government, said the State Department's Rogers. For example, while the cloud's ability to manage unplanned surges in usage is beneficial, it can mean higher, unbudgeted costs. The cloud hosts must also be able to address data protection and specific risk requirements that vary from agency to agency. Another challenge, specifically at State, are cloud performance and access implications at posts in austere locations around the globe, Rogers said.

There's a need for a strong business case that considers these factors in order to get the necessary buy-in from all parties across the department, he said.

Also, turning an agency's data over to a cloud supervised by someone else requires "a huge trust value," said John Hopkins, chief of staff for NASA's CIO.

Agencies must also meet requirements of the Federal Information Security Management Act in their cloud projects. Early OPM efforts are focused on systems that don't have records with personally identifiable information, but the agency plans to use cloud offerings being developed by the General Services Administration that will comply with FISMA, CIO Perry said.

Meeting FISMA requirements is the largest challenge for NARA as it moves it own employee records and Freedom of Information Act projects to the cloud, said Kevin McCoy, the agency's security officer. Instead of using systems and spreadsheets that separately track data for staff, visitors and contractors in the first project, NARA uses its new single cloud-based Security Clearance Tracking System. By integrating directly with OPM's eDelivery system, the NARA system reduced the time to process background investigations to two days from two weeks.

The NARA security office inserted a clause in the service contract that requires the vendor, Micropact, at the contract's conclusion, to destroy the media in FISMA-approved fashion or to return the hard drive to NARA. Encryption was required to ensure safe data transit. User access was restricted, relying on NARA's authentication service. The security office's work with Micropact, OPM and the NARA CIO shop "demonstrated the efficiencies to leadership to receive approval to proceed," McCoy said.


Meeting every requirement "could be a pricey solution," said NARA's Ravanbakhsh. The contract for initial development of the security system was $98,537, and annual license, maintenance and hosting costs $25,l00. But the silver lining is the payoff: annual savings in mailing costs of about $6,500, plus lower man-hour expenses, avoidance of previous costs related to lost personal information and credit monitoring, reduced down time and improved service for the public and the government, McCoy said.

Similar benefits are expected from the new FOIA case management system, developed with vendor Active Networks, to enable NARA's Office of Government Information Services to electronically record, track and manage case information. Contract cost was $293,747, but determining annual savings is difficult, said Miriam Nisbet, director of the NARA office.

The State Department said its cloud computing costs were $40,000 for the Bunche library and $5,000 for the Office of the Historian's records, with annual cost avoidance of $80,000 and $55,000, respectively. Final cost of OPM's documents managing system hasn't been determined, but initial estimates indicate expected annual savings of $75,000, the official said.

NASA looks for savings from projects moving some of its records management functions to the cloud such as a cloud-based electronic forms service to automatically route documents for signatures, approvals and other purposes, and cloud-based geospatial services, said Deborah Diaz, NASA deputy CIO.

"By providing publicly available cloud-based weather and climate data, users can take advantage of improved monitoring of earth observations and predictive modeling. An example would be to better understand how residents are displaced by natural disasters or where forest fires are likely to occur," Diaz said.

"Cloud computing enhances scalability and computing flexibility," she said. "Most cloud solutions offer anytime, anywhere, being able to ramp up and down depending on agency needs."

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