Home Should the U.S. Government Trust the Cloud?

Should the U.S. Government Trust the Cloud?

It wasn’t long after the last week’s Amazon Web Services outage was resolved that the cloud hosting services provider had some big news. A new zone, called AWS GovCloud, was launched for the explicit purpose of giving U.S. government agencies and contractors a secure, cloud-based environment for sensitive data and applications.

While this month’s AWS outage wasn’t nearly as long or severe as the one we saw in April, such disturbances are a potential cause for concern. If you think having Reddit or Tumblr go down for an hour can cause a panic, imagine having mission-critical systems at the Pentagon grind to a halt.

How Can Cloud Computing Help Government?

The biggest advantage cloud computing offers governments is the areas efficiency and affordability. In his 25-point proposal (PDF) to reform federal IT, outgoing U.S. Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra identified cost savings as one of the main justifications for adopting the “cloud first” approach to federal IT he advocates.

In the report, Kundra cites the 50% cost reduction seen over five years by the General Services Administration when they switched to Google Apps for email. That was a savings of about $15 million, which is just a fraction what would stand to be gained if other federal agencies followed Kundra’s recommendation of migrating three “must move” services to the cloud. By migrating more data and services into the cloud, the U.S. government could stand to save as much as $3 billion.

In addition to financial savings, employing cloud-based IT solutions generally makes it easier and quicker to deploy solutions and scale in the face of rapid growth in demand on resources.

Downtime and Security Issues Cause Concern

While some government agencies have jumped on board with the cloud migration idea, some are more hesistant, a fact explored in a recent story in the New York Times.

According to the Times:

Surveys of chief information officers of federal agencies, conducted by various research companies, show an elevated degree of concern about security when asked about cloud computing. But the agencies must comply with Mr. Kundra’s “Cloud First” policy, which encourages the use of cloud services for new projects and requires them to move at least three existing projects to the cloud by next summer.

Of course, solutions like AWS GovCloud are designed with the strict and specific security needs of government agencies in mind. The National Institute of Standards and Technology has outlined the federal government’s standards when it comes to information security risk management, and those guidelines are met by GovCloud.

As far as concerns about downtime, government agencies would be well advised to borrow a page from Netflix’s playbook. Even during the worst of this April’s AWS outage, the movie streaming service stayed up and running, thanks to an approach to engineering that aims to avoid the side effects of exactly that type of outage.

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