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Federal CIO Talks Up Government in the Cloud

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WASHINGTON — Though he knows it’s a slow ship to turn, Vivek Kundra is adamant that the federal government will shift its IT infrastructure to the cloud-based model that has been transforming the private-sector enterprise for much of the past decade.

Addressing the subject Wednesday morning here at the Brookings Institution, the country’s first federal CIO voiced a mixture of bewilderment at the government’s failure to keep up with the private sector in cloud computing and resolve to close the gap.

“What I would submit to you is that part of the reason is because we’re focused on building datacenter after datacenter, procuring server after server, and we need to fundamentally shift our strategy on how we focus on technology across the federal government,” Kundra said.

Kundra’s speech came on the same day that the administration hit a milestone in its open government initiative. The Office of Management and Budget had set today as the deadline for all the federal agencies to publish their plans for making data sets publicly available on the Web in a machine-readable format and offering greater transparency into their operations.

But Kundra’s talk today was focused on the substantial cost savings that can be gained by eliminating the staggering inefficiencies in the federal computing model, where he said server utilization rates are as low as 7 percent, a situation he called “unacceptable.”

“We need to find a fundamentally different strategy as we think about bending this curve as far as datacenter utilization is concerned,” he said.

Estimates of the cost savings to be had by migrating to a cloud model vary widely, particularly in the federal government, where much of the material locked in datacenters relates to national security or contains personal information about citizens that wouldn’t work in a Salesforce-style cloud environment.

Nevertheless, Kundra was emphatic that the fiscal benefits of cloud computing for non-sensitive data are substantial. The Brookings Institution today released a study estimating that agencies stand to save between 25 percent to 50 percent of their IT budgets by phasing out private, in-house file servers and moving to the cloud.

With an annual federal IT budget of $76 billion, that can add up to real money, Kundra said. He likened the shift to the cloud, where computing power and data are delivered on demand over the Internet, to the development of modern utility networks that provide water and electricity, echoing the thesis tech pundit Nicholas Carr advanced in his 2008 book “The Big Switch.”

As it begins its move toward the cloud, the government is actively courting the private sector to participate in the standards-setting process that will establish certification requirements for security, data portability and interoperability.

“Security is clearly the biggest barrier,” Kundra said. “Data portability is another barrier because we don’t want to lock the federal government into one vendor.”

On May 20, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is planning a cloud summit, offering vendors in the private sector a seat at the table as it begins work on setting cloud standards, which Kundra said is a critical step toward achieving the structural efficiencies he envisions, rather than simply “Webifying our current infrastructure.”

“What this moves us away from is every vendor having to go out there and certify from agency to agency, bureau by bureau, which is going to drive up the costs, and frankly doesn’t necessarily move us to a posture that creates better security,” he said.

Kundra spoke with a certain urgency about the need to move to the cloud, in part due to the rapid proliferation of data that federal agencies are creating and storing. Over the past decade, the number of federal datacenters has increased from 493 to 1,200, and hardware, software and file servers account for more than a quarter of the federal IT budget, according to the Brookings report.

At the same time he is a realist, acknowledging that the hulking federal IT apparatus is not the sort of thing that can be immediately reformed courtesy of an executive order or congressional mandate.

“This shift to cloud computing is not going to happen overnight,” Kundra said. “This is a decade-long journey.”

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at, the news service of, the network for technology professionals.

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