Cloud Vendors Take Aim at Federal IT Needs in 'Shoot Out'

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2009-12-09

Cloud Vendors Take Aim at Federal IT Needs in 'Shoot Out'

WASHINGTON-As the IT industry braces for the emerging cloud computing wave, no other sector is as well-suited to operating in the cloud as the federal government. So said a group of cloud computing experts, who extolled the benefits of cloud computing while inviting government IT managers to "jump in" and start piloting cloud computing projects.

At a FedScoop Cloud Computing Shoot Out held at the Newseum here, representatives from major computing companies shared their views on the cloud and its benefits for government users. The group included Mike Donovan, chief technologist at HP enterprise services; Yousef Khalidi, a distinguished engineer working on Microsoft's Windows Azure cloud platform; Werner Vogels, chief technology officer at; Prasad Rampalli, vice president of the Intel Architecture Group and director of end-user platform integration at Intel; Mike Hill, vice president of enterprise initiatives at IBM; Eran Feigenbaum, director of security for Google Enterprise; and Daniel Burton, senior vice president of global public policy at Dave McClure, the associate administrator of the Office of Citizen Services and Communications in the U.S. General Services Administration, moderated the panel. McClure stood in as a replacement for Vivek Kundra, who was slated to appear, but who was pulled away to launch the Open Government Initiative, announced at the same time.

Said McClure of the panelists: "These are not just giants; these are the redwood trees of the cloud computing industry."

And, given the early attention that the federal government has placed on the cloud, the FedScoop Cloud Shoot Out could not have come at a better time for many in the audience representing the government.

"The Obama administration is serious about the availability of the cloud to the federal government," McClure said. "It is a definite direction we are going. Cloud computing provides us with the ability to lower capital expenses. It's scalable; it's a high-performance option for most agencies. And it's real. We've got several examples of it at many levels in government."

For his part, Amazon's Vogels said that, in his experience, "the critical consideration for cloud is not cost, it's flexibility." With cloud computing, "IT can become an enabler of innovation," he added.

Khalidi chimed in that he agreed with Vogels, noting that Microsoft refers to that flexibility as "agility" and that this issue comes up frequently in Microsoft discussions with enterprises.

Meanwhile, Burton of cut to the chase. "The most important thing government can do is to jump in," he said. "I think it would be best to pick a few apps and jump in and try it."

Indeed, Google's Feigenbaum added: "It's not all or nothing. You don't need to have a complete cloud strategy. You can have things like your messaging and collaboration suite in the cloud." Moreover, addressing security concerns that crop up around cloud computing, he said, "I think cloud computing can be as secure if not more secure than what agencies are running today."

Where to Start in the Cloud?


Where to Start in the Cloud?

But if federal agencies are to take a cue from Burton and jump in, which applications should they start with?

At least one panelist said enterprises moving to the cloud should be prepared to make all new systems cloud-ready. "I see a very strong move with CIOs saying every new piece of technology needs to be ready to move into the cloud, whether they move them or not." Moreover, there could be external triggers that prompt enterprises to move certain applications into the cloud, such as a software license expiring.

But where to start? Everybody has their view, but collaboration applications appear to be a common denominator as a potential starting point.

Collaborative apps are "relatively easy to move into the cloud," Vogels said. "It's relatively painless and you get a little learning out of this. A very surprising application for me that falls into this early learning phase is HR. And it works because HR apps tend to be seasonal. Dev and test is another one. I also see a lot of uptake in customers moving disaster recovery to the cloud." However, "for traditional IT there are not that many ERP systems moving to the cloud," Vogels said.

IBM's Hill said Big Blue has been spending a lot of time lately implementing private clouds for governments, banks and other installations with sensitive data and workload issues.

"What we're finding is it's workload driven," Hill said regarding which applications are ready to move to the cloud. "You have to standardize on services. We see enterprises starting with dev and test, and collaboration is a big space for the cloud. ERP is not ready yet; it's a thing that's highly configurable. Also, transaction processing is not ready yet."

On his list of applications ready for easy "on-ramp" to the cloud, Burton listed: case management, project management, economic development, grant management, service management, travel and tourism, and housing applications, among others.

 A Practical View of the Cloud

Offering a "more practical view" of the move to the cloud, Intel's Rampalli said, "There's the promise and the hype, and there's the reality" of the cloud. Among the pain points in moving to the cloud, Rampalli listed the integration of compute, network and storage infrastructure; the issue of VM (virtual machine) sprawl and the need for more and better management tools; security; and federation of the cloud. These are concerns users should be aware of, and Intel is attacking these issues, he said.

However, Vogels said he did not agree about there being a lack of management tools, and cited IBM's Tivoli and BMC's technology as evidence of available tools. Rampalli acknowledged that there are "islands of automation" available but no broadly available tool to deal with the overall problem.

Khalidi added that "there are tools like Tivoli and [Microsoft's] System Center. ... And we learn from VM sprawl." Yet "we do believe at the bottom layer you need to have basic automation to drive cost out."

To this point, Google's Feigenbaum shot back: "When you're buying a SAAS [software-as-a-service] solution, you're out of that business. You're buying a package and to some extent you're indifferent to what it's costing them. So we're seeing a tremendous uptake in moving e-mail-through our enterprise Gmail-to the cloud."

In response, Khalidi simply said, "Cost has to flow through," meaning that any extra cost incurred by the supplier will find its way to customers.

Cloud Security and Federation


Cloud Security and Federation

Taking the issue of security a little further, Feigenbaum, who said he is responsible for security for Google Apps, said, "The primary issue with security is perception. But the cloud is more secure [than traditional systems] because it was built with security in mind."

"It depends on your workload-some things you can't move to the cloud," Khalidi said.

"I agree; it's workload driven," said IBM's Hill. "I think security and SLAs [service-level agreements] are not an issue in the cloud."

"Security has a lot of layers to it," said Vogels. Security is's "Priority No. 1," he added, "because there is no finish line with security. You have to build complete processes that are secure, not just infrastructure that's secure."

The panel also agreed, for the most part, that the notion of a "federated cloud" is actually real and available today.

"The federated cloud exists today," Burton said. Salesforce interoperates with Google, Twitter, Facebook and several other cloud-based environments, he said.

Indeed, "The federated cloud is already here," said Vogels. For example, he noted, "You may use compute [services] from Microsoft and other services from other providers like At this moment, by keeping the interfaces as simple as possible, anybody can use these services."

"We feel very good about this," said Microsoft's Khalidi. "We are all collaborating and talking."

Is Federal Acquisition Ready for the Cloud?

When McClure opened the panel up to questions from the floor, one federal government IT manager asked whether the cloud providers would be willing to provide "a free and open community sandbox" for federal users to try out working in the cloud space. All the big providers said they have free trial versions of their offerings available.

Another audience concern was whether federal acquisition policy is ready for cloud computing.'s Burton played up the significance of this concern, saying, "A lot of IT is purchased as a capital expenditure, and when you switch to the cloud it's an operational expenditure."

To this, McClure, whose agency, GSA, has oversight for federal procurement, said, "We'll have multiple acquisition vehicles [available for procuring cloud services] in the government."

As with any technological change, the move to a new paradigm takes time and requires shifts in standards and requirements. On this, Intel's Rampalli said he believes "there is a need for defining or creating an open data center framework."

And on the issue of compliance with federal guidelines, HP's Donovan said: "I'd advocate a set of standards that help me to comply-a set of criteria that can be independently measured. Then we can get beyond some of these acquisition issues." 

Rocket Fuel