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Taking cloud to the next level

Agencies begin to embrace cloud as a way of business

Sep. 24, 2013 - 02:54PM   |  
By NICOLE BLAKE JOHNSON   |   Comments
Amazon Web Services
Frank Baitman, CIO of the Department of Health and Human Services, speaks at the 2013 Amazon Web Services Worldwide Public Sector Summit on Sept. 10 in Washington, D.C. (Colin Kelly/Staff)

Frank Baitman’s vision for cloud operations at the Health and Human Services Department goes beyond one-off projects or simply moving in-house servers to contractor data centers.

As the department’s chief information officer, he envisions an ecosystem of applications and services that employees can access on-demand, expand to accommodate more users and integrate with existing systems.

“The cloud isn’t where you do computing; it’s how you get your business done,” Baitman said at the Amazon Web Services Public Sector Summit this month . “We are seeing savings; we are seeing better service. And we are seeing things that simply weren’t possible before being done in the cloud.”

Following the administration’s 2011 mandate that agencies evaluate cloud options for new IT procurements, HHS migrated its health data exchange system to an Amazon cloud with shared storage and analytic tools for health agencies. The BioSense 2.0 program collects health data from government and civilian hospitals to provide a real-time picture of health conditions across the U.S.

“CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] has a situation room with a map of the world, and you can see what is happening around the world with health conditions and zoom in to any event and see what the underlying data is,” he said. BioSense 2.0 works because it’s in the cloud. It enables HHS to gather data from multiple sources in a way that was not previously possible.

For a number of agencies, cloud has enabled them to consolidate multiple email systems, shutter underutilized data centers and reduce IT costs. But many agencies are just scratching the surface.

“With some kind of major budget cutting around the corner, no matter what happens with sequestration, government organizations need to lower their information technology costs,” Aileen Black, vice president of VMware’s public sector, said in a Federal Times commentary. “One option that works: Leverage cloud technology. And don’t stop with routine IT processes; the impressive savings come when you leverage cloud to truly support your mission.”

Two years ago, agencies were mainly focused on moving software applications like email to the cloud because that was a big pain point, said Susie Adams, chief technology officer for Microsoft’s federal government business.

“We’re now seeing them shift in response to mandates ... to get out of the data center business” and better utilize remaining facilities, Adams said. A lot of the focus now is on infrastructure costs, she said, noting the Defense Department’s plans to acquire from industry data storage capabilities, web hosting, database hosting services and virtual machine services.

“They really want to switch as much as they can to commercial cloud,” she said. If the workload is too sensitive or a cloud vendor doesn’t meet security standards, they are considering private clouds offered exclusively for an agency and not available via the public Internet.

Navigating the cloud

Cloud computing, however, isn’t about security alone. It’s about agencies’ blueprints for their IT systems, how they are designed and work together, and whether systems can operate in a cloud environment, Baitman said. Systems that can move quickly and efficiently and save money will be migrated to the cloud, he said.

Baitman also wants to improve how his agency buys and provides cloud services to HHS customers. For vendors, he wants to make it easier for them to sell cloud solutions to the government. One of the first steps was helping Amazon to get approval under the government’s cloud computing security program, in part because Amazon solutions were already in use across HHS programs.

“What we’ve done so far is lay a foundation,” he said. “We have framed the house, and now we need to fit that house with plumbing, with paint and build that relationship with Amazon” and other vendors as well.

HHS needs a common platform to support software and applications, Baitman said. He is working with companies such as Salesforce.com and Verizon Terremark to verify they meet Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program standards.

The key to building these relationships will be a new cloud broker model the agency is developing with the General Services Administration and Department of Homeland Security. The broker, either an agency or vendor, will help customers navigate the complexity of cloud service offerings and may also provide added cloud services.

Under the broker model, HHS customers should be able to identify an IT need, come to the CIO office or broker and receive a variety of options, based on different security ratings, pricing and terms of service, Baitman said.

By October, he expects to have a proof of concept for the broker model.

One challenge is figuring out how to pay. Can existing funds move across accounts or will agencies need a draw-down account for cloud purchases?

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