Cloud computing still a challenge for some agencies

Thursday - 4/15/2010, 10:30am EDT

Darrell West, VP and Director of Governance Studies, Brookings Institution

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By Dorothy Ramienski
Internet Editor
Federal News Radio

The topic of cloud computing is making waves in the federal IT sphere, with many cloud providers and enthusiasts touting the potential cost savings as a reason for making the switch.

Recent analysis from the Brookings Institution shows that agencies are reporting 25 to 50 percent savings by moving IT operations to cloud computing.

Darrell West is vice president and director of governance studies at Brookings and explains what they examined when compiling their report.

"What we wanted to do was look at a variety of local and federal agencies that have actually made the move to the cloud to collect some cost information before and after to see exactly what the level of cost savings are. There's a lot of variability depending on exactly what is involved with that migration, but we found substantial cost savings. With the federal government spending $76 billion overall on information technology, [with] about $20 billion devoted to hardware, software and servers, the potential for cost savings really is quite substantial."

Virtualizing one's own infrastructure has been touted as another potential area where savings could exist. West said there can be big differences in terms of dollars spent -- and saved -- when comparing virtualization and moving to the cloud.

"What we found is that there are a lot of federal agencies that have their own file servers [and] often have underutilized usage of that file server because they never know when there's going to be a spike. . . . A lot of federal agencies might have file server utilization as low as 12 percent. If you can move to the cloud and boost that ulitization rate, there are going to be substantial cost savings right there."

The main problem with moving to the cloud has to do with security. Many agency CIOs are wary that their information could be accessed by unauthorized users. West said the GSA is currently working on moderate to high risk security needs.

"They have already issued some principles in terms of low risk environments, but a lot of agencies are going to require much greater security. That, of course, involves a much greater expense, and, depending on how those security provisions are implemented, that will start to limit the cost savings that you get. For example, some high security agencies need to have the data stored in the United States, they need secure facilities, they need personnel who have passed various types of background checks. Once you start to implement those types of security needs, it can reduce the degree of the cost savings that you might achieve."

It all boils down to methodology. In order to achieve optimum cost savings with the correct amount of security in place, a CIO or IT manager needs to have a comprehensive plan in place if he or she wants to venture into the cloud. West said this is why the GSA is also working on identifying which cloud solutions are best for federal agencies.

"The federal government is getting much better organized. Vivek Kundra came to an event that we had and talked a little bit about his philosophy. So, I think the federal government is moving in the right direction, but there still is a lot of work yet to be done."

For more on cloud computing in the federal space, check out Federal News Radio's Fed Cloud Blog.