Cloud computing, identified by the White House as a chief priority for the federal government, is slowly gaining traction throughout the agencies, which CIOs are steering toward a point where unique, mission-critical applications will join commodity functions like email in the cloud, federal IT executives said Thursday during a panel discussion here at a government cloud computing conference.
The formal beginning of that transition might be traced to November 2010, when a top Office of Management and Budget (OMB) official announced the "cloud-first" policy, directing agencies to prioritize cloud computing technologies as they consider new IT rollouts.
Coming from on high, that mandate may have helped set the tone for a government-wide shift, but agencies likely would have warmed to cloud technologies on their own as they sought new cost savings and developed compelling business cases, according to Department of Commerce CIO Simon Szykman.
"I think the cloud-first policy was very influential at creating conversation around cloud, but honestly, I'm one of those people who thinks that we would be moving in that direction even without a cloud-first policy," Szykman says. "I think it was a wave that was approaching with or without that policy."
Cloud More Than a Commodity
But the federal march toward the cloud, even if inevitable, is hardly without its obstacles, and nowhere near complete.
Panelists at the Federal Cloud Computing Summit said that the early government efforts have generally focused on replacing basic applications like email with cloud-based offerings. That leaves more ambitious efforts such as infrastructure plays and custom business-process applications still ahead on the roadmap.
"Where the business meets the cloud is still an open question, because mission programs and mission applications have not yet really been considering the cloud as a possible solution, because we haven't turned it into a business resource. It's still very much a technology solution where IT is defining what the cloud is and working with the cloud. What the cloud is for the business is something we have to really evolve towards, and I think we have some hurdles to cross there," says Hamid Ouyachi, CTO at the Department of Labor.
"The social value, in a sense, of cloud within the organization will become interesting when it becomes technologically boring," he adds.
Such projects are underway. Looking ahead at the 2020 U.S. Census, for instance, Szykman describes plans to support the fleet of tens of thousands of temporary workers the Commerce Department dispatches into the field for that project with a cloud-based virtual desktop infrastructure.
In some ways, the labor effort behind the Census is a neat fit for a government agency looking to test the waters with new technologies. For one, the workforce behind the project is thoroughly mobile, with field workers fanned out across the country to collect household data.
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