WASHINGTON -- Cloud computing and open data were the watchwords here at the opening session of the Gov 2.0 Expo, a trade show focusing on the next generation of government technology produced by O'Reilly Media and TechWeb.
In a rapid-fire series of brief keynote presentations, industry leaders and government officials took turns pitching the audience on the value of migrating government IT infrastructure to the cloud and the potential of engaging the public with online data sets, new developer platforms and the social media tools that have come to broadly define the era of Web 2.0, a trend long-championed by O'Reilly Media CEO Tim O'Reilly.
But transplanting the hallmarks of the Web-based computing age to government IT is hardly an overnight process. Members of the Obama administration have been talking loudly about both the cloud and data transparency, and have taken several steps toward implementing Obama's open government directive, though after 16 months they acknowledge that the feds' IT makeover is only still in its early stages.
Perhaps one of the administration's clearest embraces of the Web 2.0 spirit was the launch of Data.gov, a public Web site set up as a clearinghouse for federal datasets. For O'Reilly, the real value of an effort like that site is less about the credo of openness and transparency than the creation of a sandbox for developers to build useful, engaging applications, much in the same way that Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) reshaped the mobile landscape when it allowed developers to begin creating apps for the iPhone.
"We're going to start thinking about designing [government] programs that are enablers," O'Reilly said. "This is clearly a big part of the story of Data.gov -- it's going to take all of the government's data assets and turn them into a platform that developers can build on."
It's not uncommon for government lawyers to raise concerns about opening federal datasets to the public and implementing social media tools throughout the agencies. But the reluctance to move government computing infrastructure to the cloud is often pinned on a resistance to change embedded in the culture of the federal IT apparatus.
Uncertainty about cloud computing
Dave Girouard, president of Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) enterprise division, said that part of the uncertainty throughout the government about the cloud echoes the same reservations that industry players are still working through.
"There's a lot of misunderstanding about cloud computing," Girouard said, admitting that the notion of farming out sensitive data to third-party firms can be "scary" to outfits accustomed to maintaining their own datacenters. "There's a lot of fear and uncertainty and doubt over who owns the data and how it is managed."
Obama's top IT bosses, U.S. CTO Aneesh Chopra and CIO Vivek Kundra, have been actively evangelizing for the migration of federal agencies to the cloud, launching last September Apps.gov, an online shopping mall for firms like Salesforce (NYSE: CRM), Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) and others to highlight their cloud-based services for federal IT managers.
Linda Cureton, the CIO of NASA and one of the more prominent advocates of the cloud in the agencies, described the transition of federal IT infrastructure with an air of inevitability.
"This disruptive technology should not be ignored," Cureton said. "If you ignore it it's going to run you over."
But across both the public and private sectors, proponents of the cloud argue that the shift has been slowed by a variety of policy factors apart from any cultural roadblocks.
Microsoft weighs in
Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) has outlined a framework for federal legislation that would aim to clear away many of those obstacles.
Brad Smith, the software giant's general counsel who first presented the blueprint for the Cloud Computing Advancement Act in a January speech in Washington, spoke Wednesday at the Gov 2.0 Expo, praising some federal efforts to spur adoption of the cloud, including the Federal Communications Commission's work to accelerate faster, more widespread broadband networks.
But more needs to be done, Smith said. Microsoft has teamed with a broad array of technology companies and advocacy groups calling for an overhaul of a 1986 law governing the privacy of electronic data that sets a tougher standard for information stored on a user's personal computer than for data on a company's servers. The company is additionally advocating for the revision of a computer security law that also dates to the 1980s, which it says has fallen out of step with the modern cloud-computing era.
"They're good laws but they have a problem: they reflect the way computing worked a quarter of a century ago," Smith said.
Microsoft's cloud computing framework also calls for heightened security standards and an effort to set clear guidelines to settle questions of national sovereignty when dealing with data stored on the far-flung servers of global IT corporations.