Derecho strikes GSA right in the cloud

Wednesday - 8/22/2012, 5:22am EDT

Ruben Gomez, reporter, Federal News Radio

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The derecho thunderstorm that knocked out power throughout the capital region in June should spur agencies to consider backup Internet connections, a General Services Administration official said Tuesday.

The storm caused widespread damage and left millions of people without electricity for as long as a few weeks. It also halted GSA's Internet access for a time, said agency Chief Information Officer Casey Coleman in an interview with Federal News Radio. As a result, agency employees could not connect to certain GSA cloud services, such as email.

"By midday [June 30], connectivity had largely been restored. So it was only an outage of a couple of hours," Coleman said. "But had it happened during a weekday, that would have been perhaps more impactful."

Coleman said the loss of connectivity illustrates a broader need for agencies to think about enlisting secondary Internet Service Providers that can keep them online when their primary ISPs go down. She said the need becomes greater as the government adopts more cloud-based services.

Casey Coleman, chief information officer, GSA

"We need connectivity regardless of whether it's to our own data centers or whether it's to a cloud," she said after a presentation at a conference sponsored by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants in Washington. "So the question is really not so much a cloud-based question as it is a question about how ... we maintain access to critical services regardless of where they're being served from. And that would involve potentially thinking about multiple providers or different technologies including, landline and satellite and other services that might provide backup connectivity."

GSA was one of the first major agencies to move its email to the cloud. It hired Google and Unisys in December 2010 under a five-year, $3.6 million deal.

Erik Boxhoorn, director in KPMG's federal practice, said agencies should require ISP service-level agreements and contracts that aim for redundancy.

"It's a balance between perhaps procuring additional telecommunication equipment and having the telecommunication providers moving to some of their own more resilient and robust backup systems," he said.

Boxhoorn said agencies should consider providers that can re-route Internet traffic using virtual switching technologies instead of physical hardware.

Hiring two ISPs, one for the primary Internet connection and the other as a backup, is expensive, Coleman said. So agencies should consider how the cost of downtime, including the loss of communication, compares with the cost of retaining a second access provider.

"When the storms passed through, high traffic applications such as email were affected," she said. "But lightweight communications, like texting and instant messaging, were still working. So we still had a very limited ability to communicate and were able to set up our response plans."

Boxhoorn said the threat of connectivity problems should spur agency leaders to think more carefully about the kinds of services and data they transition to the cloud. But he also said cloud computing offers a better value than infrastructure located on-site at agencies.

"Because you're using a cloud provider, often you're actually increasing your uptime because you don't have the traditional downtimes you experience with maintenance issues," he said. "So overall, the downtime [resulting from events such as widespread power outages] may actually still be less than the downtime you would have on your on-premise systems, because you don't have the planned or unscheduled maintenance that you used to have."

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