Phil Horvitz of Apptis: Selling cloud computing to government customers

A little over a year ago, cloud computing was barely on anyone’s radar. Now you can’t go a day without hearing about it. Companies are investing billions of dollars in servers for cloud infrastructures. Microsoft is adding some 200,000 servers a year, Google as many as 500,000.  By 2011, an estimated 15.8 million servers will run in large data centers in cloud configuration, driving down computing costs and spurring customers to scale back or abandon their own data centers altogether. So where does the government fit into this megatrend? Phil Horvitz, CTO of Apptis, offers trends and selling strategies to keep on your radar in what is fast becoming the year of the cloud.

What’s the conventional wisdom on the government’s move to cloud computing?

Phil Horvitz: Until recently, the conventional wisdom was that small and midsized companies would be the first adopters of cloud computing, then the Fortune 500s and then, ultimately, the Federal Government.  But the global economic decline has been putting massive pressure on every business to be more efficient with IT — and the government is not exempt from these pressures.

How has Green IT hastened government interest in cloud?

Phil Horvitz: Cloud Computing enables agencies to improve efficiency through more effective server utilization. A recent analysis found that, on average, server utilization in most government data centers averages between 5 to 10 percent, thus wasting vast amounts of electricity. That may have been acceptable in the past, but it’s not going to be acceptable going forward.

How has the Obama administration hastened government interest in cloud, if at all?

Phil Horvitz: The new administration will definitely spur movement to the cloud.  For example, we recently worked with the Information Technology Association of America, to develop a position paper on cloud computing for the incoming Obama administration. We were also encouraged to see several of the new appointees being extremely well versed in the benefits of Cloud.  Ultimately, these events will accelerate changes on the policy and regulatory side so that it will be less challenging and more acceptable for Government agencies to move to a cloud architecture.

The Obama administration’s enthusiasm notwithstanding, what are the government’s major concerns over cloud?

Phil Horvitz: The Government, of course, has a lot of concerns about security and trust.  There are many regulatory and compliance challenges to meet.  There are guidelines, FISMA for example, that specify how Government systems should be secured.  However, these guidelines were written before cloud computing and, for that matter, before virtualization.  So even for a government agency to do virtualization they will find that security guidelines don’t directly address security in a virtual environment and don’t even come close to addressing how this would be done using cloud architecture.  So, it’s going to take a while for the regulations to catch up to the technology.

How can federal contractors facilitate a transition to cloud?

Phil Horvitz: You have to be knowledgeable of the benefits and challenges to educate your client. There is a lot of concern in the government about cloud architecture, that the data will not be as secure as it would be using conventional architecture.  There is some truth to that but there is truth the other way as well.  For example in many applications, the databases are not encrypted, whereas when we architect something for a cloud environment we encrypt every database both at rest and in motion.  Also, when hackers target systems, one prerequisite is they usually know which server to hack into.  In a cloud environment, however, the application can move around;  In a large cloud, the application can theoretically be on one of a million different servers, thus making it more difficult to target.

What other steps can help facilitate the switch?

Phil Horvitz:
Cloud is such a new and disruptive technology, you need to build trust relationships with government CIOs, CTOs and security officers — government thought leaders who understand the status quo of inefficient architecture is no longer acceptable and will drive the adoption of Cloud. However, a lot of folks are risk averse and will see no reason to take on the challenges associated with Cloud until it matures. Keep in mind it usually takes a couple of years of working with the customer before you reach a trusted advisor status so probably shouldn’t consider proposing Cloud until then.

Any last steps?

Phil Horvitz: Yes, I believe the best approach today is using a Hybrid Cloud model. It’s important to realize that the government has considerable investment in data centers today; you are not going to be able to rip out their existing infrastructure and replace it with a cloud.  Instead, design the system to augment their existing data center with an external cloud on demand. This on-demand, or “Cloud Burstring” capability is terrific for handling surge.  Many government agencies have applications that fit the Cloud Bursting model where they require additional computing power for a period of time, then don’t need it anymore. For example, the IRS has seasonal business and when they process taxes they need a lot more computing power than when they aren’t processing.  Augmenting these data centers with additional computing on demand via Cloud Bursting is an effective alternative to operating with low utilization the rest of the year.  That’s kind of the best of both worlds.

What else do you see happening this year with cloud?

Phil Horvitz: Some sort of certification program for a cloud maturity model to address the security and trust issues will probably come into play for prospective cloud providers to work with the federal government.  Also expect Cloud providers to begin to carve out portions of their cloud either physically or logically for Government use.

One last question. Where does SOA fit into cloud?

Phil Horvitz: SOA is not required to take advantage of the benefits of cloud computing, but well designed architectures will require less work for them to be cloudified.  From this perspective I see SOA as an enabling technology that will accelerate migration to the cloud. Going forward, I think the dream for enterprise architects is to be able to design systems using loosely coupled SOA services on one or more clouds and to pull them into a single, unified, homogeneous application without regard or concern for whose cloud they run on.

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