Agencies using cloud to de-clutter IT systems

Thursday - 11/3/2011, 5:23am EDT

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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Richard Spires wants the Homeland Security Department to follow the minimalist approach when it comes to its back-office technology.

Spires, the DHS chief information officer, said the set up now — mostly a client-server approach — leads to too much clutter.

Instead, Spires said DHS wants to make services, such as storage, computing power, email and collaboration — that take up servers, personnel time and resources — more like a utility in the cloud.

DHS CIO Richard Spires. (Photo: DHS.gov)

"Cloud will continue to start to take on business processes in the near term, probably four or five years, before we start to really see it take off," Spires said Wednesday during a panel presentation at the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Cloud Computing Forum in Gaithersburg, Md. "For now, it's buying that utility through the middleware layer because I want all of my people focused on that customer, working with that customer, better understanding their objectives, their capability needs and how we will build IT systems on top of that stack in order to meet those needs. That's the value of an IT organization, particularly in the kind of department I'm in. We don't do nearly enough of that. I think we are clearing away a lot of this clutter and that is why I think it will change so rapidly."

The idea of using IT to meet mission needs is far from new. Every time the government has moved into emerging technology, the call came for using IT to meet the mission.

But Spires and other say this is different because of the impending budget cuts every agency is facing in 2012 and beyond.

For example, the Office of Management and Budget wants agencies to find ways to spend less on acquisition and on back-office systems.

Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel. (Photo: CIO.gov)

Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel detailed his new "share-first" policy, where agencies must look to see what technology already is available before buying new.

VanRoekel, who also spoke at NIST Wednesday, said cloud technology is at an inflection point to answer a call, in this case for agencies to do more with less.

VanRoekel defined four key areas of cloud to get to that end state of reduced IT clutter.

  • Agencies. "We want to ensure they have all the right tools (that are) necessary and resources to migrate to the cloud," VanRoekel said. The CIO Council is working on a white paper and best practices to show how agencies are using cloud, which will focus on things such as Freedom of Information Act requests, privacy, e-discovery and other considerations, he said. "We want to bring them into the conversation early so they are not after-thought conversations."

  • Procurement. He said the cloud cybersecurity initiative, called FedRAMP, is the key piece to this focus area. VanRoekel said the standards and memo are in final review at OMB. Over time, OMB will make it mandatory for agencies to buy only those cloud services that have gone through the FedRAMP process.

  • International considerations. This includes challenges such as jurisdiction, security of data in transit, traceability, service-level agreements, codes of conduct and consideration of local laws. "Our goal here is to carefully strike the balance between trade considerations, cybersecurity implications and really our innovation agenda," he said.

  • Cybersecurity. This is the most important area, and agencies cannot afford to make the trade-off between security and innovation, VanRoekel said. Moving data and applications to the cloud can make systems more secure in the cloud, he added.
"We also are very much focused on people," he said. "What we've noticed in looking at cloud deployments in agencies — it's very much a multi-disciplinary consideration. It's not just the CIO or technical people involved. The job of the CIO is to bridge or be that universal translator between the business and technology needs and implementation."

Even as OMB and the CIO Council continue to work through several of these issues, agencies are moving quickly into the cloud.

Public and private clouds

DHS, for instance, already is using a private cloud for its sensitive data and a public cloud for non-sensitive data.

Keith Trippie, the DHS executive director of enterprise system development, said there are about 10 to 12 areas the agency is moving or wants to move to the cloud.

Trippie said DHS wants to make it easy for employees to access data and applications anywhere, anytime.

"Most of the department is out there and is mobile," he said. "They are not necessarily inside the Beltway so we have to provide better services to them."

DHS awarded two task orders to HP and CSC to provide workplace-as-a-service. The idea is to make the desktop software and applications live in the cloud so employees can access them easily.

Program and project managers should be able to buy computing power, servers and storage in one day or a few hours, he said. Right now, DHS has cut the time it takes to do that from six-to-nine months to two weeks.

"We want to reduce the time to market. It shouldn't be acceptable that it's 12-to-18 months to provide new capabilities for our customers," he said. "We want to shrink that cycle down. We want to get to six months for new releases and for every iteration after that, no more than three months."

The cloud will improve how DHS meets its internal and external customer needs, Trippie added. For instance, the department put its application allowing citizens to check their employment eligibility in the cloud. He said currently 22 states are using the software online.

NASA moving beyond Nebula

Along with DHS, NASA also is jumping feet first into the cloud.

NASA in 2010 launched an infrastructure-as-a-service offering, called Nebula.

Adrian Gardner, CIO of NASA Goddard Space Center. (Photo: NASA.gov)

Adrian Gardner, CIO at NASA's Goddard Space Center, said the space agency also offers storage-as-a-service and soon will move into data- and platform-as-a-service.

"We are virtualizing our desktop infrastructure because we are looking at mobility and we know laptops are going to decrease in the marketplace and in our environment," he said. "So we are looking at, now, how we can virtualize the desktop in such as way you can gain access to your desktop and your resources from any device, any place and anywhere."

Gardner added NASA eventually plans on creating a marketplace or apps store to improve access to software to help solve common challenges.

"Once the storefront is set up, we will pilot with a specific number of users," he said. "Then we will begin to tailor and refine those attributes in such a way it's really slick and folks can get real-time access to 'the compute' in a way that meets their requirements and needs. This is really about the business and the mission of NASA, it's not really about the technology. It's really about making sure our scientists and engineers have the compute they need to accomplish the mission of NASA and the U.S. government."

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