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ebizQ's Business Agility Watch


Government Cloud Is Where the Action Is: Talking With Tarak Modi

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Listen to my podcast with Tarak Modi, Principle Architect at G&B Solutions and someone with more than 15 years of proven experience solving business problems by aligning business and IT. In this podcast we talk about cloud computing, SOA, and the government, which, with the Open Government Directive, is a very exciting space right now and for the foreseeable future.

Listen to or download the 15:27 minute podcast below:

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PS: Now, there's been a lot of talk about the open government directive, can you give me an overview of what it is and how it will impact companies going forward?

TM: Absolutely. Let me begin by saying that this truly is an exciting time to be an IT professional involved with the federal government. While most private and commercial sectors are under heavy economic restrictions due to a stagnated economy, the federal government is on a roll with many fresh and innovative IT based initiatives. The open government directive is just one example of how exciting times are in the federal government and the potential for IT professionals to prosper in the federal government space. It was issued in December 2009 and in just 11 pages, it lays out the Obama Administration's vision for what a transparent participatory and collaborated government should look like.

The open government directive is organized as a series of milestones. For example, by now, each federal agency should have published at least three new high value datasets at data.gov and have created an open government webpage serving as the gateway into the open government activities. All agencies will have to publish their plans on how they will implement the open government by the end of April. The directive also calls for a new framework that will allow agencies to use challenges to solve problems. This is a prime example of the government using a new phenomenon called "crowd sourcing" which is the use of crowds to solve problems in return for a price.

In this case, it involves using the private sector or citizens to solve public sector or government problems. Implementing the directive is also going to require a review of policies such as the Paperwork Reduction Act and the Privacy Act to identify and remove roadblocks to the use of new technologies that can lead to an open government. In short, stay tuned for a lot of activities from the government as they continue to march forward towards an open government.

Why exactly is the federal government so interested in cloud computing?

TM: To understand why the federal government is so interested in cloud computing, we need to look at some numbers first. The number of data centers in 1998 was around 432. Fast forward to 2009 and that number is over 1100 data centers. That represents more than 150% increase in the number of data centers. Now think about the cost of supporting these data centers. In 2006, the federal data centers used approximately six billion kilowatt hours of energy. That's a total electricity cost of over 450 million US dollars.

Now consider that based on the current usage trends, the EPA estimates that energy use 2011 will be over 12 billion-kilowatt hours. Now those are some pretty numbers. And in light of these very impressive numbers, and given the value proposition of cloud computing, it makes perfect sense and it's little wonder that cloud computing is a major part of the strategy to achieve efficient and effective IT within the federal government. To be honest, there's nothing new over here. In fact, the OMB has been emphasizing the use of shared service centers to help decrease redundant IT projects and the number of data centers for over a decade. It actually started during the Clinton Administration when we just had just over 200 data centers but look at what happened since then.

This is also an example though where the government is putting its money where its mouth is. Clouds figure prominently in the 2011 budget where President Obama has asked for about $35 million to fund cloud computing programs, and other IT initiatives, and another $70 million for the National Institute of Standards and Technology to develop cloud related standards. Ultimately, initiatives such as cloud computing are absolutely necessary as there's no way we can sustain the rate at which the data centers have proliferated and the energy they consume on a ongoing basis. We just have to embrace cloud computing.

Tell me a little more about how the government exactly is embracing cloud computing.

There's so much going on right now in the federal government. I'll just give you a few examples. GSA's Apps.gov is probably the most well known government cloud. It was launched in September 2009, by the federal CIO Vivek Kundra as a storefront for federal agencies to leverage a variety of productivity, business and social media applications that range from wikis, blogs, analytics applications and data management tools. It even includes applications from Salesforce.com and Goggle. Then there's Nebula, which is NASA's version of the cloud. Nebula is actually similar to Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud and it's based on Eucalyptus the Xen Hypervisor and Linux.

Another government cloud is RACE, which is the pride and joy of the Defense Information Systems Agency. RACE is implemented using VMware on HP Blade servers and boasts an incredible uptime of (indiscernible) and compare that to the (indiscernible) that Google and Amazon promised. Finally, the Department of Interior has its own cloud implemented at the National Business Center, which is a shared service center that's been supporting civilian federal agencies for a number of years. NBC's cloud is based on a lot of IBM technology including the IBM systems z9's and z10's, the zLinux, the zlinux, the zVM, and Tivoli software.

Now not to be left out, both Microsoft and Google have committed to creating government specific clouds as well. These will obviously compete with Apps.gov, Nebula, RACE, and NBC's cloud. There's actually been some early events as well. For example, the Department of Homeland Security is in the process of consolidating 23 data centers into just two data centers. The US House of Representatives has already consolidated more than 400 physical servers to less than 100, and that's reduced power consumption by over 45%.

The same story with the Marine Corp, which has consolidated 2,000 servers into just 300 and that's reduced power and cooling costs by 65%. And then finally, GSA moved USA.gov to the cloud in 2009 and it expects to save just about $2 million annually based on that transition. So yes, there's definitely a lot going on around cloud computing in the federal government.

When you think of the government, you think of some of the oldest computer systems in existence so what exactly are some of the unique challenges government agencies face going into the cloud?

Well, moving to the cloud has some unique challenges even if you're not the government. Technically speaking, almost anything can be hosted in a cloud even if the application was not originally designed to be put there. But that does not mean that all applications and data should be inside the cloud. For example, it's hard to justify moving an application into the cloud if it's already efficiently and effectively supporting the mission objective for the agency. Government agencies have another restricting factor too, a unique challenge if you will. There are bound by a plethora of security and privacy laws and regulations such as FISMA, the Paperwork Reduction Act and the Privacy Act.

Consider FISMA, which is the Federal Information Security Management Act that most federal information systems need to comply with. An information systems that's characterized as high by FISMA can only be put in a cloud that when certified to host high systems. Then there are the continuous monitoring, recertification, and reaccreditation requirement, which can take a huge toll on the cloud provider. Another example is that a federal agency that uses a cloud service to host personal data could actually be in violation of certain provisions of the privacy act especially if it doesn't have provisions for protecting the data and limiting the location of where the data is stored in a contract with the cloud provider.

A third example involves federal records management and disposal laws that may limit the ability of agencies to store official records in the cloud. The National Archives and Records Administration, NARA, recently addressed this at a very high level in their FAQ but the guidance is still (indiscernible). The fact is most agencies are still worried about getting burned. To be honest, their fear is not entirely misplaced. Even though a lot of foundational technologies is not new, the way it's being combined and used in the service delivery model are quite innovative and even disruptive. It's going to take time, patience and some learning for the agencies to overcome this fear.

A few of the key regulations such as FISMA are even revised to be more understanding of cloud environments. But in the meantime, many agencies are still using virtualization software to create so called pseudo-private cloud within their own data centers to leverage some of the benefits of cloud computing while ensuring continuity and building a bridge to the future.

Now, SOA has been under fire quite a bit lately in the private sector. Now how does SOA stand with the government; is it still seen exactly as a viable option?

You're absolutely right. SOA has been under heavy fire in the private sector. In fact, I still recall very clearly the proclamation made by Anne Thomas Manes of the Burton Group in early 2009, that SOA is dead. But now, let's switch over to the government for a moment where things are a bit different with their mandate for IT modernization.

As an example, consider the GSA where according to CIO Casey Coleman they currently spend about 83% of their IT budget on steady state operations and maintenance. That's 83% to just keep the lights on. Instead of waiting for special investment dollars, what they're doing is selectively investing in initiatives that will free up money from the legacy systems and reinvest that in the new stuff. A prime example of this is SOA.

Now SOA is in the fire on the private sector mainly because of a heavy emphasis on ROI. SOA was sold to many companies as a (indiscernible) that will reduce cost and increase agility on a massive scale. But in reality, it's failed to deliver tangible ROI in most cases due to a number of reasons, most actually not related to SOA at all, but I digress. Let's get back to the government agencies. Well, it's not all about ROI but about delivering services to citizens. The DOD and civilian agencies but in the federal government have some of the biggest interoperability headaches in IT.

Whether they're coordinating activity among military services, integrating intelligence sources, or linking together state and federal benefit systems. SOA provides a way to smooth that integration and decrease the time to develop and deploy new applications. And somehow, government officials also seem to understand better than their private sector counterparts that SOA benefits don't come overnight and that actually might be because that things do get a bit slower in government anyway.

So let me summary my answer. The government is still very keen on SOA because first, it improves information sharing amongst agencies. Second, it lowers the cost of integrating disparate systems across agencies. Third, it provides a way for agencies to find and share reusable software applications and services. And fourth, it accelerates the modernization of legacy applications and the development of new applications.

Looking ahead for cloud and SOA in the government, what do you see for this year and next?

Predicting the future is difficult but one thing is for sure, that the innovative use of technology that has started with the Obama Administration is sure to continue. I think there is no doubt that the Administration will continue to enhance Data.gov and USASpending.gov to improve transparency and openness of the government. And I'm fairly sure that the Administration will also continue to acquire and deploy new social media technologies to improve citizen engagement and explore using new and innovative tools to improve the collaboration and effectiveness of the federal workforce.
We'll also definitely continue to see more pilot project in cloud computing aimed at transforming how the government provides computing services to its citizens. And finally, I think there's going to be lots of reviews and revisions to many of the regulations around security, privacy, and government collaboration with the private industry. But the ultimate goal of supporting the use of new technologies and innovative service delivery models within the federal government.

Ultimately, I think it's all about the convergence of IT with the principles of transparency, openness and collaboration, which is what I see as the rise of citizen's oriented architecture, a government that's architected for the people and by the people. In short, my prediction is be ready for a real Government 2.0.

ebizQ’s expert blog team covers a broad range of BPM, business integration, business analytics/monitoring, collaboration, content and related issues.

Peter Schooff

Peter Schooff is Contributing Editor at ebizQ, and manager of the ebizQ Forum. Contact him at pschooff@techtarget.com

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