Gov't agencies embrace cloud computing

By , IDG News Service |  On-demand Software

U.S. government agencies, at first slow to adopt cloud computing, are starting to see the benefits, including low costs and quick deployment, government officials said Wednesday.

Cloud computing services from Salesforce.com helped the U.S. Army revamp its recruiting technology tools in a couple of months, and helped the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) Program Support Center create an enterprise-ready requisitioning tool within weeks, officials with the two agencies said at the Software Information Industry Association's conference on cloud computing and software-as-a-service (SaaS) in Washington, D.C.

Army officials approached Major Larry Dillard about revamping its recruiting technology last September and asked for a new model to be rolled out by the end of the year, said Dillard, program officer for the Army Experience Center. Using Salesforce.com, Dillard was able to get a CRM (customer relationship management) software package up and running for far less than it would have cost to buy new software, Dillard said.

The pilot program, with 35 users, has been able to make a number of improvements to the CRM package in the past five months, including support for mobile devices, an issue Army recruiters have been struggling with for years, Dillard added. "The power of that is starting to have some converts," he said.

The HHS Program Support Center, which provides support services to several U.S. agencies, has a similar story, said Robert Spector, director of business process improvement there. In late November, an outgoing top official at the agency asked Spector to investigate how to put an IT product request application online, and within a couple of weeks of choosing Salesforce.com "we actually had a working model," he said.

Asked if cloud computing was about to see wide-scale adoption in government, Dillard and Spector offered differing views. The biggest challenge for Dillard was getting buy-in from other Army officials, and he said it will take some time to win converts.

Spector, however, said he sees government agencies under great pressure to consolidate services and cut budgets. Cloud computing "represents the future of our business," he said.

But agencies thinking about cloud computing need to do their homework before diving in, said Ron Ross, director of security at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a standards-setting agency for government. Agencies considering cloud computing contracts need to weigh the benefits, such as productivity increases, with concerns about control over data, security and other issues, he said.

NIST plans to release guidelines for government use of outside cloud computing services later this year, with an eye toward providing flexible guidance, Ross said. "There are great potential benefits for cloud computing and software-as-a-service," he said. "Our job is not to be an impediment to the new paradigm."

Agencies concerned about security and other issues can demand detailed service agreements from cloud computing vendors, and they need to periodically re-evaluate their needs, Ross suggested.

"We have to have a system here where ... we can negotiate what kinds of security controls are necessary in order to do the job for the federal agency," Ross said. "I would like to be able to see evidence of what security due diligence means to the vendor. What kind of security controls are they deploying?"

Agencies need to view cloud computing contracts with an eye to risk management, he added. "Trust is all about a continuum," he said. "You're never going to have complete trust. We don't live in a risk-free environment -- we have to manage risk, not avoid it."

Despite some concerns, cloud computing could provide "great" benefits to government agencies, in addition to productivity increases, particularly in the current economy, Ross said. "The IT budget on the federal side is enormous, and we're going into a climate where there are going to be scarce resources," he added. "There's going to be tight budgets. There will be compelling reasons to find better ways to do business with regard to IT."

Earlier in the conference, cloud computing vendors addressed several of the concerns that government customers continue to voice, including security. Cloud computing vendors typically go through rigorous security audits, and many vendors focus on delivering and securing only a handful of products, said Steve Maier, general manager of the government systems division for SpringCM, a document management vendor.

In many cases, customers see specialist cloud computing vendors as more secure than if they were trying to secure the same software internally, Maier said. Large business and agencies can find it "very expensive" to monitor all their systems, he said.

And potential customers can take cloud computing services for a test drive more easily than they can test some in-house software products, added Shally Stanley, managing director of global services for Acumen Solutions. Often, cloud vendors can provide instant access, she said.

"People can test it, play with it and get comfortable with how it works," she said.

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