Cloud Computing–How High Should Government Fly?

The information technology industry has fallen head over heels when it comes to cloud computing. Many analysts have weighed in on the inevitability of shutting down your outdated server room and shifting to services that are hosted on the Internet at a remote data center.

It’s hard to argue against the cloud computing trend, especially since most of us who are active in IT are using cloud services ourselves, whether it may be email, cloud storage, online collaboration, and many more.

Government agencies are also enraptured with cloud computing, as it conjures up visions of faster projects not to mention the perennial prospect of giant cost savings. The Obama administration is promoting cloud computing and agencies are embarking on an unprecedented push from government owned and controlled computing to using commercial capabilities. So far, no major missteps or tragedies have marred the cloud love affair.

But not so fast. Government needs are different than either our individual consumer needs or corporate requirements. To maximize savings with cloud computing, you have to accept the services as offered to the mass market. The more you ask for customization, the higher the cost of initial acquisition and maintenance.

Government customers often value stability more than keeping up with the latest in technology. The ability of cloud services to be updated literally overnight may be a curse as well as a blessing for government workers. What if a new feature requires retraining? How would a vendor resolve conflicts among requested features?

The business rules of government are different than those of businesses. Even the smallest details such as nomenclature or definitions may be embodied in regulations which are reflected in information systems. When the federal tax code changes, for instance, the IRS must update its software for receiving, enforcing and auditing taxes.

Security requirements are more stringent for government than for most businesses. It would be damaging to a company to have its chicken seasoning or soft drink recipe exposed, but government agencies have higher stakes such as national security. The agencies focused on law enforcement and national security correctly see the risks of cloud computing outweighing the putative rewards. Civilian agencies face security challenges as well, such as privacy for health information and social services.

Even government purchasing is ill suited to cloud computing. How do you write a procurement for subscription services whose costs cannot reliably be predicted? What if actual usage doesn’t match what is budgeted? Will the proprietary nature of most cloud services discourage competition for contracts? Will government customers become handcuffed to particular services and have a hard time switching vendors?

Will government fly too high like Icarus in the quest for cloud computing and end up taking a nasty fall? Only time will tell.

This is from the blog series, Gov & the City, written by Jim Townsend, president of InfoStrat. To follow visit http://blogs.infostrat.com/2010/08/cloud-computing-how-high-should.html

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Kris Gedman

These are great questions! And Jim’s point about purchasing is spot on. I definitely think this is an area that needs to improve. I know I’ve heard most if not all of these quesitons and concerns myself. I’m always interested to hear what others concerns are about utilizing the cloud and I’ll be watching for comments! Thanks Jim for articluating these points, and thanks for posting here Emily!

Mark Diner

Your comment on the business rules of government being very complex hits the nail on the head – and is part of the reason so many enterprise architecture programs suffer beyond the conceptual. Government is complex – very complex. IT systems are complex – very complex. Further, many of the processes that are embedded within government business are poorly documented or not documented at all. Far to often this complexity is poorly understood at best, or in denial at worst. This complexity must first be addressed. Then bring on the clouds – even if they are thunderclouds with damaging hail.

Emily Compton Hellmuth

Kris, Mark- thanks so much for the great feedback!

Mark- I agree that the complexities of government and government IT systems need to be well thought out, documented and understood before making the jump up to the cloud.

Kris to reference your blog, I like how you point out that the term “cloud” & the hype surrounding can distract from the fact that the cloud should not be viewed so much as a new “solution” but a new way of “offering solutions” that has both pros and cons depending on the vendor and solutions chosen.