“Agile, pragmatic, visionary” are not the first words that come to mind when we think of governments. I think, the current IT leadership of the US Federal Government is fit for these superlatives. According to Reuven Cohen the US Federal Government spends $20 billion per year on server and storage hardware. The average utilization of this hardware is 7%. This means that $18.6 billion of capital goes unused. This is taxpayers’ money we are talking about. Addressing lightly utilized capital intensive IT infrastructure is the hallmark of Cloud Computing so it should not be a surprise that IT leaders in the US Federal Government would turn to cloud computing. Last week (October 19, 2010), US feds announced that “federal, state, local, and tribal governments will soon have access to cloud-based Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) offerings through the government’s cloud-based services storefront, Apps.gov.”. US government agencies will have a blanket purchase agreement that will allow them to consume cloud resources without a requirement for prior approval.

Paul Burns provides excellent analysis of the General Services Administration (GSA) announcement in his blog post on the subject. As I said above, the fact that US federal government would turn to cloud computing to reduce their IT costs and improve agility is not surprising. What is surprising is that the government turned to the public cloud to do so. A quick recap of public vs. private cloud. In a public cloud, a cloud operator builds data centers and stocks them with IT resources (servers, storage, networking) which they virtualize and highly automate. The resulting IT capacity is rented to us through a self-service interface and we are charged (typically by the hour) for the resources we consume. Private cloud is deployed by an organization in it’s own data center exclusively for use by the organization itself. These IT resources are residing in the owner operated data center protected by firewalls and the rest of the security infrastructure and processes. Private clouds are typically suggested as a solution for larger organizations that have sufficiently variability and size of workload. Private cloud is viewed as a solution for calming down security and privacy concerns often associated with public clouds. US Federal Government certainly has enough workload to amortize across a private cloud and, one would think, security and privacy would be top concerns. Yet, the government made a bold move and went with the public cloud. I am sure part of the motivation was to put some of that $20B to work in the private sector and provide the US economy a much needed boost. But it may also be a recognition that most of the public cloud providers have done an outstanding job of not only providing absolute lowest cost but also delivering security and resiliency that satisfies government’s stringent needs in these areas. All of the approved clouds completed certification approcess at the FISMA Moderate Impact Data security level. This means that while we will not see ballistic missile launch systems go in to the cloud, less sensitive government workloads will get the benefits of lower cost, and self service provisioning. This is very pragmatic and sets the tone not just for the government agencies but for the private sector as well. Now that the US Federal Government has made this step in to the world of Cloud Computing, it will be difficult for IT managers to argue that their security requirements are higher than those of their government. I expect this will provide a boost not just for public cloud providers but also for companies delivering middleware and software in these clouds. For example, IBM makes a lot of its middleware, including DB2, available in the Amazon EC2 as well as its own IBM Smart Business Development and test on IBM Cloud.

United States Seal

As I was writing this post I was looking at the Great Seal of the United States. I read a bit on the symbolism of various elements. One thing that struck me as odd is the ring of white clouds surrounding the star constellation at the top of the seal. Coincidence? It is as if the United States forefathers were telling the current administration to go with the cloud. Let the conspiracy theories begin :-).

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