Government cloud computing interest heats up

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Since the start of 2010, one of the hot topics in the IT press has been cloud computing in the government sector. The need to control costs while maintaining high levels of service has led authorities the world over to re-assess their IT needs, and it appears that the flexibility offered by cloud computing has become flavour of the month.

In the UK, the Government's Chief Information Officer, John Suffolk, recently iterated his feelings on the topic, endorsing a hybrid model where a private government cloud (or clouds) co-exists with public cloud services, which can in some cases deliver better numbers due to the sharing of costs across a wide user base -- one of the big benefits touted for the cloud. Suffolk's argument is straightforward: "if it delivers good citizen outcomes at a price you can afford then use the public cloud" but -- crucially -- Suffolk also believes that personal data should not be stored in the cloud.

This highlights one of the primary concerns about cloud adoption, which is data security. The amount of sensitive and private information collected by the government is enormous, including healthcare details and financial information, and security problems can be extremely embarrassing. Problems related to security in government IT were discussed here.

The Society of IT Managers, a group representing the interests of IT executives employed in the UK government sector, has already iterated a cautious view of cloud computing, warning that while cloud computing offers the potential to deliver significant savings to public sector organisations, new risks will also be introduced, which need to be understood and addressed. SOCITM's fears centre on issues including "uncertainty of service standards, ownership and security of information and ability to control and manage demand".

Moving across the Atlantic, a private cloud being developed by NASA is being seen as a potential tool for hosting a range of US government websites, with a NASA team working with a team from the office of the Federal CIO to explore the potential of the solution. The authorities are paying NASA for the use of the cloud, called Nebula, which will fund additional work on the project -- giving the shared cost benefit of a public cloud, but with the security offered by a private deployment. Nebula also uses an architecture designed to mimic Amazon Web Services' public EC2 cloud, making it well suited to shared use among a tightly defined user base.

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It was also reported that the US Census Bureau has "tentatively begun tapping cloud computing to reduce the cost and accelerate delivery of its services to its employees and the public". In many ways, the Census Bureau would appear to be the ideal candidate for cloud computing: during its data gathering process, it needs a massive amount of computing power to support its various tasks, however after this its needs decrease sharply, as does its IT budget. Cloud computing is perhaps the most appropriate way to address this fluctuating demand, without needing to purchase computing power necessary to handle the peaks, but which lays dormant at other times.

There are dissenting voices, for example with IDC Government Insights stating that cloud computing is "not ready for prime time" in 2010.

Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.