Jul 29 2010

On a Cloudy Day

Here’s the thing: The forecast definitely looks cloudy.

As agencies face across-the-board budget cuts in the coming fiscal year, IT shops must define exactly how and where cloud computing will figure in their agencies’ infrastructures.

White House CIO Vivek Kundra has pointed out that you “can’t just webify our brick-and-mortar infrastructure in a cloud infrastructure.” Translation: CIOs and other federal IT leaders need to delineate a migration path to the cloud just as they would any other technology adoption by defining costs and benefits, assessing risks and setting priorities.

The realization has set in that to gain the most benefit from moving applications, processing or platform services to the cloud demands a thorough look at the hardware, software and network infrastructure in place within agencies.

IT organizations must then take that information and answer several questions: What makes sense to move to the cloud without violating the data privacy rights of citizens or threatening national security? What’s the likely return on investment? What infrastructure requirements are necessary to facilitate use of services moved to the cloud?

One Step at a Time

For its part, the White House — with the aid of the federal CIO Council — is focusing attention on cloud efforts through the federal data center consolidation initiative. Kundra says he wants to see game-changing approaches to data center management reflected in fiscal 2011 and 2012 spending.

Exactly what those approaches will entail should begin coming to light over the next few months as agencies and the Office of Management and Budget hammer out final consolidation road maps that specify how virtualization and cloud computing

can help improve infrastructure utilization, reduce energy consumption and boost cost efficiency. OMB received agencies’ consolidation plans this month and says it intends to make them final before year’s end.

Clearly, federal IT officials are wary of their ability to deliver fully on the White House’s demands within the next two years. A survey in late spring illustrates that while federal IT officials find the administration’s cloud plan realistic, most believe it will take three to five years, or more, for agencies to move enough processing over to the cloud to enable considerable consolidation. In its survey of 143 federal IT officials and systems integrators, MeriTalk notes that respondents ranked shared infrastructure platforms (76 percent) and collocation (60 percent) as the quickest routes to consolidation.

But regardless of the longer timeline, agencies clearly see cloud use in their forecasts, too, whether through small private clouds within their own organizations, through government clouds run by agencies (such as the Defense Department, the Interior Department or NASA) or through bought services using a governmentwide vehicle such as the one the General Services Administration is creating. As Kundra says, cloud computing “is part of the policy framework of this administration.”

Coming Together

40% Percentage of civilian agency systems considered low-impact security risks and candidates for cloud computing solutions

SOURCE: Data Center
Consolidation Initiative
, OMB, February 2010

The IT industry realizes this as well. In response, Cisco Systems, EMC and VMware have teamed up to form the Virtual Computing Environment (VCE) coalition with the idea that the shift to the cloud is a technology journey and that the private cloud option appeals to agencies because of their unique security needs and a desire to take advantage of existing infrastructure components. By working together, a coalition of these manufacturers and additional IT partners can cover a spectrum of services: virtualization, networking, computing, storage, security and management technologies.

Perhaps equally important, the VCE approach offers organizations a way to make large incremental leaps and speed up consolidation.

By providing products and services in configurations that the VCE coalition calls Vblocks, the theory is that data centers will be able to more rapidly step up their consolidation efforts because computing, networking and virtualization tools will come pre-integrated in the hardware components. It’s definitely an interesting option that offers another possible route toward cloud migration.

Only time will tell which approaches agencies will find most attractive as they begin to implement data consolidation and cloud efforts. Ultimately, however, meeting these management demands can be viewed as a positive thing, points out Justice Department CIO Vance Hitch: “This is forcing us to do our jobs, which is good.”