Cloud Computing: Boosting Economies of Scale for Government IT

February 2011
Topics: Cloud Computing, Government Agency Operations
As more government agencies, businesses, and individuals explore the value of cloud computing, it looks like sunny skies ahead for this new model of IT infrastructure.
two men in data center

One indelible image from the early days of the Internet is the "cloud" that was scrawled on the office whiteboards of every organization learning its way around information technology. Originally meant to depict the network, the ubiquitous cloud has now given its name to a new concept—cloud computing—that promises to deliver another radical shift in the way we share information.

"Cloud computing means different things to different people," says Larry Pizette, a MITRE principal software systems engineer. Several familiar examples of how the public is already using cloud computing-based services include social networking, entering personal income taxes online, and storing photographs on a third-party site. These examples are very different from a government organization using virtualization software to improve the use and flexibility of their infrastructure. Yet, they are all commonly called cloud computing.

The Evolution of the Cloud

The appeal of cloud computing can be attributed to multiple factors, including on-demand computing capabilities that can scale quickly as well as network-enabled applications that allow users to work and collaborate regardless of their location. These capabilities can facilitate continuity of operations and the potential for reduced costs.

Indeed, many organizations are pursuing cloud computing due to the potential cost savings of shared infrastructure. For example, a private cloud can be enabled by virtualization technology, which allows many virtual servers to be run on a physical server. The IT agility enabled by creating virtual servers on demand, coupled with the potential for reduced energy and labor costs, make a compelling case. And environmentally, it's greener too.

Already, government organizations are implementing cloud concepts, both as providers and consumers.

For example, the Defense Information Systems Agency's RACE (Rapid Access Computing Environment) provides a community cloud for the Department of Defense. Similarly, NASA's cloud computing platform, Nebula, offers a convenient way for scientists and researchers to share large, complex data sets internally and externally. Also, USAspending.gov 2.0, a website established as part of the initiative to make government work more transparent to the public, is hosted on NASA Nebula.

MITRE and the Cloud

Cloud computing at MITRE spans the company and includes each of its centers. "At least 50 projects, both research and in our direct work program, are using cloud computing in some way," according to Marie Francesca, director of corporate engineering operations.

The MITRE Corporate Chief Engineer's Office supports a public website that specifically serves as a forum on cloud computing for the government. The website hosts a blog that provides an opportunity for subject matter experts and market leaders to share their ideas on cloud topics. Representatives from IBM, Microsoft, EMC, Deloitte Consulting, Eucalyptus, CA Technologies, SalesForce.com, CSC, and other organizations, along with MITRE, provide valuable insight on many cloud computing topics.

Internally, MITRE is applying cloud technology as well. For example, over the last five years, MITRE's Center for Information and Technology (CI&T) has created and expanded a successful virtualized environment. Today, more than 60 percent of the corporate servers are virtual, and cost-avoidance figures have exceeded $8 million over the life of the project. And CI&T has an Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) private cloud under development that will be available for MITRE project use.

Does the Cloud Meet Your Needs?

Cloud computing is not for everyone or every situation. "Each organization needs to develop a business case and determine the appropriate deployment and service model based on their unique requirements and circumstances," says Pizette.

"Like many large commercial firms, government organizations will have to decide where cloud computing will fit in their broader IT portfolios, and where the true benefits will be realized," says Geoff Raines, a senior principal engineer.

Despite the potential cost and resource savings, organizations exploring cloud computing have raised concerns about the security and interoperability of data, portability of applications, and dependency on wide area networks. For example, if the information is not sitting in a local data center, where is it and who has access? Who are your neighbors in the cloud? Is information secure from malicious attacks? And finally, what if the network goes down?

"Clearly, the use of cloud computing requires a comprehensive view of the technology infrastructure needs of the organization, matched to the characteristics of potential cloud providers, so that potential risks are within an organization's comfort zone," says Raines.

The Future Cloud

The number of cloud service providers is growing rapidly, and so are the options open to the IT decision maker. Both Pizette and Raines urge government organizations to avoid working with only one vendor. They also recommend looking for increased portability among cloud providers. Finally, it's important to be aware of standards development, which is an area where the National Institute of Standards and Technology plays a leading role.

"We can expect that cloud computing will evolve with more offerings targeted toward government customers," Pizette says. "These offerings will continue to better address SLAs [service-level agreements] and standards and security, making them more widely used and easy to acquire and adopt."

Cloud concepts will likely spread to other areas of IT as well. "The desktop PC environment is expensive to maintain and secure," says Raines. "In the next couple of years, we will see more cloud-based, virtual, desktop environments, with a goal of lowering costs and easing life-cycle maintenance. We can expect cloud computing, due to inherent cost advantages when implemented on a large scale, to continue to be an important topic for our customers for some time to come."

——by Elvira Caruso

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