If Governments Can, Why Can’t You? | Gaining Altitude in the Cloud

Posted On May 16, 2011

All around the world, governments are increasingly stepping up to the Cloud.

Early last week, the U.S. government’s General Services Administration (GSA) issued a solicitation for cloud-based email, office automation, and records services, in a contract estimated to be worth up to US$2.5 billion over five years. The GSA expects savings of nearly 45 percent from this move.

By the end of this year, the government CIO’s commitment to a “Cloud First” policy is expected to result in closures of up to 137 data centers across the United States. While this is only about 6 percent of the government’s 2,000+ data centers, it’s a great start given the extent of change required.

Across the Atlantic, there are plans to consolidate the U.K. government’s 8,000 data centers into a dozen centers on an internal G-Cloud. The government also recently released an alpha version of a consolidated government portal (alpha.gov.uk) hosted on Amazon’s cloud platform, that aims to centralize access to all government services.

In China, there are plans to build a cloud computing center the “size of a city” within the Heibei province, to primarily serve government departments.

These moves by governments around the globe represent, for perhaps the first time in recent memory, path-breaking leadership in technology transformation. Change is never an easy subject, especially within the public sphere. Yet the extent of potential benefits from a move to the Cloud is making governments take notice and make the plunge.

Private enterprises stand to learn a variety of lessons from these public sector Cloud moves:

a. They set the lead for large private enterprises

The Cloud is already at the forefront of CIO priorities for 2011. However, many enterprises hesitate to take large technological plunges given the extent of change required from legacy environments. Questions often emerge as to whether Cloud strategies are better suited for small-to-medium environments, and for new next generation initiatives. Enterprises also question how the change can be managed across so many different business units with disparate platforms. 

The scale of attempted governmental transformation should put such questions to rest. If an entity with over a thousand departments and an US$80 billion IT budget (a.k.a. the US government) can make the shift, why can’t you?

b. They indicate greater tolerance towards risk and security challenges

As recent discussions on this blog indicate, security and compliance concerns constitute two of the biggest impediments to transition to the Cloud. Yet, with risk sensitive departments such as Defense, Homeland Security and the NSA making the move, it’s clear the public sector’s concerns on these risks have been largely alleviated.

As the head of the U.S. Cyber Command General Keith Alexander recently testified in a House sub-committee hearing“…moving the programs and the data that users need away from the thousands of desktops we now use —each of which has to be individually secured… to a centralized configuration that will give us wider availability of applications and data combined with tighter control over accesses and vulnerabilities and more timely mitigation of the latter…Indeed, no system that human beings use can be made immune to abuse — but we are convinced the controls and tools that will be built into the cloud will ensure that people cannot see any data beyond what they need for their jobs and will be swiftly identified if they make unauthorized attempts…”

c. They herald greater maturity in the supplier ecosystem

Google and Microsoft have sparred publicly over the last few months over the (alleged) respective lack of FISMA certification on Cloud services offered to U.S. government agencies. As the war for public sector Cloud prospects heats up, so will functionality and service provider maturity. For example, Google Apps for Government now includes specialized security functionality: data location and segregation of government data, necessary to ensure greater security and compliance.

In addition, as The Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program  (FedRAMP) mechanisms are established later this year to enable government-wide certifications and authorization, more Cloud vendors will step up to meet the bar.

d. They indicate need for concerted CIO-level leadership

Since 2009, when Cloud computing was identified as a Federal IT priority, the U.S. government’s CIO has unveiled a wide range of initiatives: establishing standard definitions;  defining Cloud value propositions; launching Cloud store fronts; establishing the “Cloud First” strategy as a keystone of IT strategy; setting clear decision frameworks and timelines; and establishing new Cloud standards. Clearly, Federal Cloud initiatives are leading change across a diverse government organization, much of which has been driven by the CIO’s determined efforts to push through change, despite naysayers and challenges.

Governments’ migration to the Cloud represents a monumental effort in technology change in a large and complex organization. As private enterprises navigate to the Cloud, they have much to learn from the public sector’s lead.

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