The Pros and Cons of the Federal Push Toward the Cloud

Less than a year after the government's Cloud First initiative, there's some pushback

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From email to music to movies, the cloud is the future, allowing you to share and store your information for use on multiple devices. Not only have big tech companies adopted cloud-based futures--Apple will release iCloud in the next few months, as we reported --but the benefits of cloud computing have even lured the U.S. government, which announced its Cloud First plan last December. Over six months later some agencies, like Homeland Security, have started moving their information off of physical data centers. But others aren't buying into it, reports The New York Times' Sean Collins' Walsh. "[The] vision for a leaner and more Internet-centric future for government is being met with caution by at least a few of the technology chiefs at the federal agencies that now have to carry it out." That's because like all seemingly great things, the cloud has both major benefits and major drawbacks.

Cost-saving?  The government suggested moving information onto the cloud as a cost-saving measure. Having all the information on the Internet, rather than hosted on expensive data servers, would save the government lots of money, explains Walsh. "Contractors like Amazon, Google and Lockheed Martin market their cloud services as a way for private companies and government agencies to avoid having to build and manage costly new data centers as they add computing capabilities." Cloud First would save the government over 3 billion dollars a year, argues Vivek Kundra, the White House's chief information officer, which is enticing for an already costly enterprise, argues SmartPlanet's Joe McKendrick.

The financial benefits are too compelling to pass up, espcially for an $80-billion-a-year IT operation such as that of the US federal government. The cloud-first initiative may help the government in its efforts to reduce and consolidate its stable of 2,100 data centers. The government is moving to reduce that total by at least 40% by 2015.

It would also reduce the government's energy costs, explains eWeek's Chris Preimsberger. "At last, the White House is seeing some actual movement from U.S. federal government agencies on bringing cost- and energy-saving cloud-based services to its legion IT departments."

But cloud computing may be more expensive than people realize, believes California CIO Teri Takai, speaking to the IJIS Institute. "The community that feels that moving to cloud computing is cheaper hasn't fully explored what the costs of cloud computing are and what the challenges of cloud computing are." And it's not unlike the government to dump funds into an ultimately useless initiative, explains Walsh. "But the government has also developed a reputation of wastefulness for pouring money into projects that grow in scope over time without delivering significant results, or for building immense hardware systems that are unnecessarily duplicated among agencies."

But is it secure?  Of course security issues trump cost. At first the cloud seemed safe, Preimsberger continues. "Early reaction has been positive, since there haven't been any known security lapses or outages in the first 60 days." But the new technology opens the government up to new types of cyber attacks, Takai told Walsh. Putting information on the cloud makes it more vulnerable, but that openness can be good too, Washington CTO Bryan Sivak told IJIS "[With cloud computing] you’re always going to have somebody who’s not one of your employees looking at your data," Sivak said. "On the other hand, because open source code is completely open and vetted by the community as a whole, any security concerns or holes in the software would be found and filled by people who are evaluating the product."

In July the Pentagon suffered its largest cyber attack, Walsh reports. "Hackers obtained 24,000 confidential files. Defense officials said they suspected a foreign government’s intelligence operation could have been behind the attack." When data sits on servers the government knows exactly where it is, information's whereabouts is murkier on the cloud.

Faster?  Beyond cost saving measures, the cloud would increase government productivity. "The cloud can help speed along technology projects," Chris Smith, the Agricultural Department's information chief told Walsh. It also provides a lot more flexibility because users can change the size and scope of their project without major infrastructure changes continues Walsh. Other big organizations that have adopted the system have seen such results explains Preimesberger. "Those in favor of the strategy insist that the move to upgrade federal IT will improve worker productivity and help lower service, equipment and power costs. In fact, that is what most enterprise companies say they have experienced in their own moves to a service-oriented IT system."

But the benefits might not trump the security risks. And as with any government venture, keeping information secure could outweigh savings.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.