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Government Cloud Adoption Continues to Grow, But Slowly

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Spurred on for the past few years as many barriers ranging from security concerns to cultural changes have been overcome, government adoption of cloud services, which has been growing quickly, is now expected to slow down.

Joel Cherkis, Microsoft’s Worldwide Government GM, has noted that governments have been embracing cloud technology in the past three years to operate more cost effectively, enhance services, and embrace more flexible computing models. Government cloud spending is expected to reach more than $5 billion in 2017.

Cherkis highlights three factors contributing to cloud’s momentum in government: security, policy and demonstrated Return-On-Investment.

Security and data privacy have been priorities for many government agencies. Programs like the US FedRAMP have helped promote baseline security standards for cloud solutions aimed at government agencies. The development of hybrid cloud delivery models that combine on-premise IT with public and private clouds have also helped provide new security options. Recently, the Department of Defense revisited their cloud plans which have been stalled for years due, in part, to security concerns.

Policies that promote technology adoption help drive adoption. The US Cloud First initiative requires agencies to consider cloud solutions when making new IT investments. As well, the US and the UK have made the procurement of cloud services process simpler through cloud.cio.gov and the G-Cloud Initiative respectively. And, last month, IBM announced it is providing the state of California a cloud platform that gives municipalities and all state and local government agencies access to all kinds of cloud services

Demonstrated ROI is perhaps one of the most compelling reasons to choose cloud solutions. If, as studies suggest, the US federal government can reduce its total IT budget by as much as 25 percent, while also potentially improving the delivery of services.

Yet there are significant roadblocks when it comes to government cloud.

For starters, many of the applications that are easiest and most cost-effective for government agencies to move to the cloud have already been moved. For instance, the US Army saved more than $100 million by moving to a cloud-based enterprise email system in 2011. Specialized agencies involved in areas such as healthcare, defense, and finance may have a harder time moving their more specific applications to the cloud which also often involves sensitive data and permissions.

There is also a huge gap in cloud computing awareness and skills among civil servants which could be slowing adoption. A survey of 829 civil servants (conducted earlier this year by government cloud provider Eduserv and consultancy Dods) found that 88 percent of government employees required some form of training in order to take advantage of cloud computing, while three quarters didn’t understand the benefits of the cloud to their agency. This would suggest that there’s a problem where the dominant culture within government is having a hard time adapting to new cloud technology, or perhaps just new things in general.

However, there are many ways cloud services are more complicated than they have to be. Some directories of cloud services, for instance, such as the UK government cloud services platform G-Cloud have included irrelevant services among its thousands of cloud offerings, which obviously adds to confusion.

To make the benefits of cloud services simple and clear, Robert Bohn, the cloud computing technical manager at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, has called for greater standardization, improved SLAs, and a clearer procurement guidelines when it comes to cloud adoption.

In bringing this forward, the NIST is forming three committees to seek solutions to cloud computing challenges: an Interoperability and Portability for Cloud Computing group; a Cloud Services group tasked with creating clear and consistent ways to describe cloud services; and a Federated Cloud group which is looking into ways resources can be used from multiple providers.

Given the connectivity required for cloud services, strangled agency networks can also be a problem. Wolf Tombe, CTO for Customs and Border Protection agency noted at a recent conference that its current network doesn’t have the capacity for its thousands of employees to connect to an external cloud service like Office 365. Some agencies are looking towards software-defined networking as a way to free up network capacity and ensure higher availability for important operations.

The US Government is spending a considerable amount of its budget on cloud services, according to IDC Government Insights research director Shawn McCarthy in an interview with E-Commerce Times. He said that US agencies are expected to spend about US$3 billion on cloud projects in fiscal 2014 (which began October 1, 2013), which is around $800 million more than officials predicted in 2013. Budget officials have predicted $2.9 billion of federal cloud spending in fiscal 2015, which McCarthy said the actual figure could easily be higher, yet this still shows the US government’s hesitation to spend more on cloud services.

The shift in government cloud adoption especially over the past three years has been dramatic, yet there’s still a long way to go. Cloud services offer a way for federal IT to scale as demand for services grows, and could help not only save money in delivering existing programs and services but also help implement new ones, as well as drive collaboration between agencies.

Government bodies are known to adapt slower than private-sector, yet cloud service providers can continue to patiently make the case for their services. Government and cloud providers will both have to work to bring government IT into the cloud-era.

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