a central point for collection of information as it relates to cloud computing in the government
The Federal Cloud
September 30, 2009 at 10:37 am #81861
GSA puts its USA.gov Web site in the cloud
By Gautham Nagesh 02/25/2009
The General Services Administration announced on Monday it will be moving the programs that run the federal government’s official Web portal from government servers to those operated by a private company, a strategy known as cloud computing.
USA.gov and its Spanish language companion site, GobiernoUSA.gov, will be hosted and supported by Terremark Worldwide Inc., an information technology infrastructure company based in Miami. The agreement marks one of the federal government’s first attempts at shifting computing resources to the cloud.
“This should reduce operating costs by 50 percent,” GSA spokesperson Tobi Edler said. “The reason why is cloud computing is extremely flexible, powerful, secure and has unlimited ability to scale up or down depending on what you need.”
Cloud computing describes the practice of storing applications on servers owned by an outside company — the cloud — instead of the traditional method of storing the applications on the organization’s desktop PCs or servers. Because the applications are stored on servers at a central location, it reduces maintenance and processing power costs for a company or agency. An example of cloud computing in the consumer arena is Google’s Gmail service for e-mail.
“There’s definitely a lot of cost efficiencies built into it,” said Xavier Gonzalez, director of corporate communications for Terremark. He said GSA doesn’t have to buy new servers, hardware or licenses to run the portals. “If they need more bandwidth or storage, they’re able to buy that on a real-time basis,” he said.
Terremark will host the Web sites in Culpepper, Va., about 60 miles southwest of Washington, where the company will provide the servers, hardware, bandwidth and back-end maintenance necessary to operate the sites.
GSA began considering using cloud computing in August 2008. Tom Freebairn, acting director of USA.gov technologies in GSA’s Office of Citizen Services, said the shift will allow the sites to continue to grow without the need to acquire more hardware or personnel.
“Part of the traditional data center is that you have to buy hardware, find a place to put it, power it, cool it and everything else,” he said. “It takes months, even with a facility in place. In the federal government, it may take longer because the contracting process is so difficult.”
GSA can now update its configurations and add or subtract servers in real-time, with Terremark provisioning the hardware and handling the transition, Freebairn said. “We can add a server to our needs within 10 minutes from beginning to end,” he said.
The systems are set up to automatically increase the amount of capacity for the sites as needed. If agency officials plan to issue an announcement that could drive traffic to the sites, they can notify Terremark to increase server capacity and bandwidth to ensure the sites do not crash under the increased traffic.
“They can double capacity in 10 minutes to automatically handle the spike and then bill us later at the pre-determined rate,” Freebairn explained. “We don’t have to buy double our rate for the whole year. We are only paying for what we’re using. It’s literally an on-demand service.”
Outsourcing the sites’ back-end operations also provides better security, Freebairn said.
Gonzalez said the Culpepper facility is one of the most secure facilities in the country. “We designed it hand in hand with the federal government to meet their demands,” he said.
Freebairn said the transition may take six months, but for other agencies the shift to the cloud could be quicker or slower, depending on the agency’s needs. He said GSA would serve as an example to help other agencies that might consider the switch.
“Everybody will go through a slightly different process,” Freebairn said. “The longest part was identifying what we needed and developing a plan to do that. Then it was convincing [people] and changing the culture and environment.”
© 2009 BY NATIONAL JOURNAL GROUP, INC
September 30, 2009 at 10:42 am #81863
Follow up story from nextgov.com
USA.gov’s successful shift to cloud computing could become the model
By Gautham Nagesh 09/29/2009
The transition of the federal Web portal USA.gov to the cloud, where a vendor maintains the infrastructure and applications, has been successful enough that the General Services Administration is considering the same approach for sites such as Data.gov, according to a new case study from Forrester Research.(the cost of which is $499.00)
According to the study by James Staten, principal analyst at Forrester, GSA has achieved significant cost savings by transitioning USA.gov to an outside platform operated by Terremark Worldwide, an infrastructure and cloud services provider based in Miami. Staten did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
“GSA said this migration to the cloud has brought about a number of benefits and savings, such as avoiding idle server costs while still accommodating huge traffic spikes, acting on users’ requests in real time and applying security constraints atop this platform,” Staten wrote. A GSA spokeswoman said the annual cost of maintaining USA.gov in the cloud is $800,000 compared with $2.5 million before the transition. The earlier figure included hardware costs, which now are the responsibility of the vendor.
“We were in a situation where our infrastructure required a lot of staff resources to maintain it everyday,” said Martha Dorris, deputy associate administrator for the Office of Citizen Services, which maintains USA.gov. “[Moving to the cloud] freed up resources, which we have used to upgrade our content management system to give us the ability to incorporate new functionalities and features on USA.gov to make the citizen’s experience the best it can be.”
The infrastructure flexibility is crucial because USA.gov receives approximately 100 million visits on any given day and traffic fluctuates significantly depending on external events. Staten wrote that those spikes in traffic have overwhelmed the system in the past, though Dorris disputed that notion. She said GSA recently purchased additional space in the cloud to create a mirror image of the site in case the original goes down.
“For instance, when unemployment statistics are released or during a hurricane, traffic varies substantially,” Staten wrote. “To accommodate these spikes, GSA procured hardware that for the most part sat idle — needlessly wasting power.”
Moving USA.gov has helped solve that issue by allowing GSA to purchase server capacity as needed, a practice known as “bursting.” USA.gov set a baseline capacity in its 12-month contract, while additional capacity is billed at a predetermined rate. According to Staten, some of the most successful cloud deployments have involved Web applications with similarly unpredictable traffic patterns, which are best-suited to the on-demand pricing structure.
The new format has made it much easier to upgrade the Web site. The GSA spokeswoman said upgrades used to take six months. Under the cloud model, they generally take one day.
“People talk about this in terms of technology, but it’s not really a technology issue. It’s a cultural issue,” Dorris said. “It was a big change for the technical staff that worked in this environment. We took a lot of time and effort to make people feel comfortable.”
GSA has moved USA.gov, its Spanish counterpart GobiernoUSA.gov and WebContent.gov, its guide for federal Web managers, to the cloud. The agency plans to transition its blog, GovGab, and is actively encouraging other agencies to consider moving their public-facing Web sites to cloud hosting solutions.
“Governmentwide this is a great opportunity for agencies to take advantage and save some of the IT infrastructure money spent on low-risk Web sites,” Dorris said. “It’s publicly available information anyway, and it’s a great direction and vision for us to be moving toward.”
The next major site to make the transition could be Data.gov, which provides thousands of government data feeds. The site is hosted by Terremark under the same contract GSA is using for USA.gov. But according to GSA, that situation is temporary. Officials managing Data.gov are evaluating their options, but they are expected to continue using the Terremark infrastructure while working out their own contract with the vendor.
Other benefits of the cloud Staten cited are the short time frame needed for migration and the range of security features offered by infrastructure-as-a-service vendors. USA.gov was able to transition to the cloud in only 10 days, with one additional weekend of testing. GSA added a number of its own security elements to the cloud environment, including multifactor authentication, 128-bit encryption for traffic and packet flow analysis.
© 2009 BY NATIONAL JOURNAL GROUP, INC
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