by Andrea Di Maio | March 3, 2009 | Comments Off on USA.gov in the Cloud? Yes and No
Last week the US General Services Administration announced (see article) that it will be moving the official US government web site www.usa.gov to an infrastructure operated by Terremark, which will host the web site in its data center in Culpepper, Va. This will provide GSA with great flexibility in managing its web sites without having to worry with managing the relevant infrastructure and adapting quite easily to variable loads.
This may be the first, large-scale example of cloud-computing in the federal government space. But is it really? After all, the web site will be hosted in a particular data center, at a particular location. Indeed it is not a traditional outsourcing deal and it is likely that the vendor runs workloads from other clients on the same infrastructure. Therefore yes, it is cloud from the point of view of how the client accesses the service, as well as its scalability and elasticity. On the other hand, it has clear boundaries, most likely specific security requirements that fit the federal government needs, and I doubt the vendor could unilaterally decide to move part of the GSA workload onto a different data center.
I am not entirely sure we have a clear-cut definition of cloud-computing arrangements from the point of view of how much control on server location clients are supposed to have. In my conversation with government clients, most look at cloud computing as something where – in order to achieve maximum elasticity – no assumption can be made about where data will be located. This aspect, more than anything else, makes them suspicious about the benefits of cloud computing. In their view, an arrangement like the one between GSA and Terremark is not so different from a more traditional outsourcing option (with all the benefits and SLA peculiarities of the cloud of course!).
Cloud computing becomes an issue for government when it implies multiple locations and flexible locations. In the former case, assuming vendors can guarantee as part of their SLA where (i,e. in which data centers and/or in which jurisdictions) client data will be stored, government agencies should be able to assess any compliance risk (e.g. for data protection regulations). But with flexible locations, this would become far more difficult. For instance, smaller government agencies, which would benefit most from “cloud-sourcing”, are also those with less contractual power to dictate which servers to use and in which jurisdictions, and may be unable to use cloud arrangements.
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