Cohen and Farber of Booz Allen: Talking to federal customers about the cloud

With a growing number of businesses turning to cloud computing, 2009 is proving to be a banner year for the technology. Still unanswered, however, is if and when federal agencies will make the switch, and how cloud providers can facilitate a conversation in an arena — the federal government — they may still be unfamiliar with. The answer, say industry experts Michael Farber and Drew Cohen of Booz Allen Hamilton, is to walk, not run. “There is a real opportunity here to leverage an exciting option, but there are still significant issues that must be addressed before cloud computing is adopted broadly as an alternative to existing approaches,” they tell ExecutiveBiz. Recently, Farber and Cohen offered their take on where the federal government stands in relation to cloud computing, and how you can play the cloud game — literally — at an event near you.

What has the conversation over cloud computing focused on so far?

Drew Cohen: The focal point up until today has primarily been on cloud computing as an evolution of IT infrastructure … things like data center consolidation and virtualization have been driving internal cloud initiatives and powering new commercial cloud suppliers peddling Software as a Service (SaaS) and outsourced utility computing offerings that create a trade space for what is currently getting done internally.

What’s the next phase in cloud computing?

Drew Cohen: We see a second phase for cloud computing emerging that’s about the business processes empowered by cloud computing. This includes new types of collaboration, information analysis, and information sharing capabilities that you couldn’t have done when you were bound by your enterprise versus the broader community enabled by the cloud.

Which federal agencies hold the greatest need for cloud computing?

Michael Farber: Let’s look at it at a government-wide level, which is really exciting. You have the Intelligence community, you have the national defense community, and you’ve got civil agencies.  Health cuts across two if not three of those areas. When you are talking about massive scale and things that need to be done that are more or less commoditized … just at that level you start looking for better ways, more efficient ways of managing and maintaining information and the IT assets and resources that support it.

What benefits could cloud computing bring about?

Drew Cohen: There are opportunities for cost savings and efficiencies in the federal government. Some missions have inherent needs for surge computing capability, where you need to provision tens, hundreds, or maybe thousands of computers, use them all and then stop using them within a short period of time … most infrastructures today don’t support that.  So, if you have those kinds of needs — and we see that among agencies with episodic high demand computation, computing, and document and records management needs (think about tax season) — cloud computing offers a compelling option that dramatically reduces capital and sustainment costs for a capability that is needed only for short a period of time. This is in contrast to traditional government IT models that procure IT at a constant rate as opposed to these variable burst rates.

How might cloud computing play into the Obama administration’s agenda?

Michael Farber:
There is an economic argument … basically the notion of elasticity as service on demand. Two other things that play well into the administration’s agenda are energy and the environment. You’ve got studies by industry analysts that show that our data centers are operating at 10 to 15 percent capacity. The IT footprint may not be as serious as the carbon footprint but we could reduce the IT spend on appliance and commodity services, and better use those funds – say, reinvest them in more mission and citizen facing work.

What cybersecurity challenges do organizations face in trying to adopt cloud computing on their own?

Drew Cohen: Today’s cybersecurity challenges start from the premise we are already under attack from a wide range of attackers, from simplistic to sophisticated. One of the key requirements to address these attacks is qualified people. The challenge is the “people scale” response required to defend data centers across the government and industry, which is staggering. While there are clearly security issues not yet addressed by cloud computing, cloud computing offers unique options for addressing the people challenge through massive consolidation that fundamentally changes the human resource requirements associated with securing Cyberspace.

What are the odds that federal agencies will turn to Google or Amazon in order to move to the cloud?

Drew Cohen: In some instances, where the government has enough sophisticated resources to do their own security and the data is so critical, they won’t turn to these types of providers.  On the other hand, in the cases where they don’t have those kinds of resources and data constraints, the risk/benefit trade space changes. Also for organizations that don’t have the expertise to implement and maintain their own rigorous security, that may realize security benefits going to the cloud. The security issues and trades are definitely a challenge that the federal government can pose to the cloud providers.  The next step is getting to specifics to let organizations make that trade on a case-by-case basis.

Any ideas about when the government will move to the cloud?

Michael Farber: You’ve really got almost a two year outlook here; I don’t think there’s a need to make a mad dash to the cloud. The dialogue that’s going on right now between the federal government and the providers about their needs and concerns is really what’s important.  What we might see is a series of pilot projects and test cases where we will begin to better understand the value proposition of Cloud Computing, including the state, stability and reliability of the approach, and where it makes sense to adopt and leverage it and where and why it doesn’t.

How can federal agencies and providers learn more about cloud computing?

Drew Cohen:
Well, that is a timely question. From March 10-12, we are going to be doing a cloud computing war game at FOSE. We did a CIO war game a few years ago in 2006. It’s going to be a showcase event and we are literally going to be running a whole simulation on using the cloud and how agencies and programs can consider whether and how they should think about it.

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