Adams says that the service-level agreements that Microsoft and other cloud providers routinely include in their contracts with commercial customers don't pass muster with the agencies, which also operate under compliance obligations relating to a number of security standards unique to the federal government. Taken together, these factors mean that cloud vendors often have to rewrite their contracts, which can be hundreds of pages, from scratch in a negotiated process with their government customers.
"That's probably the biggest challenge," Adams says.
Agencies also face familiar challenges that are common to the private sector when mulling cloud deployments, particularly at the infrastructure level. Fears about vendor lock-in, for instance, suggest that agencies might need to rethink their IT architecture to ensure that they retain the flexibility to shift from one provider to another, as the need arises.
"People are absolutely terrified of having to move a workload into someone else's infrastructure and then never being able to get it out," says Gunnar Hellekson, chief of technology strategist for the U.S. public sector at open source vendor Red Hat, urging federal IT leaders to ensure their operation has a flexible architecture. "The good news is you should have been doing this anyway," he said.
Adams notes that several of the emerging trends in IT have created a "perfect storm" that casts the cloud as an even more compelling option, citing an increasingly mobile workforce, telework initiatives and the "bring your own device" dilemma.
What's more, cloud computing, where processing power can be provisioned on demand, is a natural fit for big data endeavors, meshing with a government-wide push to make more data, both structured and unstructured, available to citizens on public-facing websites.
Then, too, the Obama administration has set an ambitious goal for consolidating its data centers, with agencies reporting plans to shutter nearly 1,000 facilities by 2015 and another 472 the following year.
Through the accumulated savings in energy, infrastructure and other costs associated with maintaining data centers, the federal government is projecting that the consolidation initiative will trim more than $5 billion from the IT budget as cash-strapped agencies look to capitalize on the economic advantages the cloud can offer.
"From a policy and procedure perspective, what I think is going to help the most is decreasing budgets," Adams said. "I think it's going to be forced on people to have to do this."
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