Cloud computing thunders into the government

By Bob Violino
10:13 AM
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When David McClure, a General Services Administration official, testified in front of a Senate subcommittee hearing that cloud computing will save the GSA nearly $2 billion every year, it became clear that the cloud has settled into the White House.

Indeed, the cloud craze is charging fast into government agencies. Federal CIO Vivek Kundra's office, in fact, has already identified 100 data centers it believes can be replaced by private clouds in the short-term and near 800 by 2015.

Aside from the benefits – agility, cost savings, resource reallocation for other projects – the cloud model represents an opportunity to transform the way IT supports key processes and operations.

Government organizations including the Department of Agriculture, Department of Health and Human Services, Military Health System of the Department of Defense and Centers for Disease Control are at various stages of deploying or planning cloud computing initiatives.

It's likely that the move to the cloud will grow, given that the federal government late in 2010 issued a "cloud first" policy as a part of the Office of Management and Budget's 25-point plan to reform federal information technology management. Under the policy, agency CIOs are required to identify three "must move" services and create a project plan for migrating each of them to cloud solutions and retiring the associated legacy systems. Of the three, the policy states, at least one of the services must fully migrate to a cloud solution within one year and the remaining two within 18 months.

Upward into the Cloud

The USDA's Food and Nutrition Service is using cloud computing for an application that supports its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps.

The application, called the SNAP Retailer Locator, is an online map that enables people to find retail establishments that accept SNAP Electronic Benefit Transfer debit cards. Users enter their location information, and the system identifies stores within a specific designated mile radius.

The application has been hosted on a cloud service offered by Amazon.com since the summer of 2010, said Jonathan Alboum, CIO of the Food and Nutrition Service.

One of the main reasons FNS opted to have the SNAP Retailer Locator application hosted in the cloud was that it faced a tight timeline for delivering the application to the public, Alboum said. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was planning to highlight the application in a presentation at a major national nutrition conference, and FNS planned to promote it with the launch of a new SNAP media campaign.

"We didn't have a lot of time to purchase hardware and learn about building GIS (geographic information system) applications," Alboum explained. "We needed to go to an environment where we had a high level of confidence that there was scalable infrastructure, and which deployed mapping software that could meet our requirements."

The ability to easily scale server capacity up or down as needed based on use statistics is a key benefit of the cloud service. Some 44 million people receive SNAP benefits, and FNS had no way of knowing how many people would sign up to use the application once it went live. Had the agency purchased its own servers for the application rather than using a cloud service, it might have easily bought too much or not enough hardware, Alboum said.

Using the cloud service – which Alboum said costs "a few thousand dollars" per month in hosting fees – also fit well within the agency's budget.

FNS is building a similar mapping application that shows all of the nation's healthier schools, as determined by the HealthierUS School Challenge. The program is a voluntary initiative established by FNS in 2004 to recognize schools participating in the National School Lunch Program that have created healthier school environments through improved nutrition, nutrition education and physical activity. The application will be hosted on Amazon's cloud as well, Alboum said.

 

FNS is also working with another USDA agency, the Economic Research Service, to share data over the Amazon-hosted cloud. One application the research agency is providing via the cloud is an online service called Your Food Environment Atlas, a program that allows users to analyze how food environment factors such as store and restaurant proximity, food prices and community characteristics interact to influence food choices and diet quality.

Broader cloud initiatives are underway at the USDA, Alboum said. The department, as part of a government-wide data center consolidation effort, is creating a "platform-as-a-service" (PaaS) offering that will allow USDA agencies to host new applications without having to invest in new server hardware.

FNS plans to use the PaaS environment to host its public Web sites. Alboum said the USDA internal cloud platform will leverage virtualized servers and be available to multiple department organizations at the same time.

The cloud model, including PaaS, can potentially reduce costs by avoiding hardware purchases, and also increases flexibility, Alboum said.

"I think it has a tremendous amount of promise," Alboum said. Cloud computing "gives me the opportunity to be more mission-focused. If I can think less about infrastructure and no longer have to worry about procuring hardware or hosting capacity, I can devote more resources to direct program support and do a better job for the department."

Cloud taking flight in the Air Force

The U.S. Air Force Surgeon General's Medical Modeling and Simulation Division is also leveraging cloud computing, building a cloud environment that will allow the unit to consolidate and optimize servers, storage and networking.

That, in turn, will result in greater efficiency and improved security, all at a lower cost, according to Col. Deborah Burgess, chief of the USAF Medical Modernization Division for Headquarters Air Education and Training Command and director of the Air Force Medical Modeling and Simulation Program.

Burgess said the initiative, called the Air Force Medical Service Cloud, will enable computer users to access more information faster and from more places.

All Air Force medical education and training tools will be linked via the cloud service. That includes new technologies such as virtual reality, virtual hospitals and medical gaming applications. The cloud service will enable certain training programs to be accessible at any time, and it will help the division provide standardized training programs across its various departments.

Authorized users, including doctors, nurses, technicians and patients, will be able to access cloud services on the Web using Microsoft SharePoint collaboration software. The Web portal will serve as a social and professional networking tool, and Burgess hopes it will bring more attention to existing training applications.

"We have wonderful online teaching tools on servers but many people don't know about them and they all require different passwords," Burgess said. "This is a way to make things available centrally."

Users will be able to access training applications from the desktop as well as mobile devices. "In today's world not everybody sits in front of their computer, and this is a way for us to get information out to people," she said. "We're creating a virtual world."

Another expected benefit of the cloud initiative is cost-savings. Because training programs will be easily accessible from virtually any location via the cloud service, users won't have to travel to take advantage of the programs. "If training is not available at a client's location, this is a way to bring the information to them," Burgess said.

The division will also avoid energy costs that would have come from needing additional servers to support training and other programs.

The Air Force division has received funding for the cloud service and created a Web portal that people can use to access applications. Online service will be operational soon, Burgess said.

Training and other applications on the cloud will be hosted by a major medical center at the University of Central Florida, chosen by the Air Force division because the institution provides hosting for the Army and Navy and has strong cloud security technologies and policies in place, said Manny Dominguez, CIO at the Air Force Medical Modeling and Simulation division.

 

UCF's network has been fully authorized by the Defense Department, and the DoD has also approved security of the university's data center. "Their expertise in DoD network/system security, as well as their experiences in working with the other (military) services and medical simulation, made them a strong candidate for partnership in the area of cloud hosting," Dominguez said.

Ultimately, cloud computing is a way to help improve the delivery of healthcare services, Burgess said. "People are taking more responsibility for their own care, (and healthcare information) is going to be pushed to us," she added. "In order to maximize that we need to develop online, standardized tools for patients. We need to change healthcare delivery, and I think this is one way to go."

HHS, CDC start cloud plans of their own

Other government entities are also exploring cloud services.

HHS, for instance, is leveraging cloud-based customer resource management tools to support the implementation of electronic health records systems.

HHS is developing 70 Regional Extension Centers, which will assist more than 100,000 primary care practitioners. To coordinate healthcare providers' implementation of new EHR systems, a 2010 report by Kundra's office said, HHS is deploying a cloud-based CRM application provided by Salesforce.com.

The application will support the department's RECs in the selection, implementation and meaningful use of EHRs, the CIO report states. It notes that after reviewing internal and cloud-based solutions, HHS decided that hosted applications offer the best CRM solution for a quick, inexpensive and rapidly scalable implementation.

One advantage expected from deploying a cloud-based CRM application is the ability to update the system as RECs begin using it.

The CDC is in the early phases of using cloud computing. "Based on the Cloud First initiative, CDC will be evaluating all services to determine whether they fit a cloud-based model," said Terry Boyd, senior advisor to the CIO at the CDC.

All systems will be reviewed and classified as to whether they are a candidate for cloud computing based on technical requirements, Boyd added.

Security Concerns

Information security remains one of the biggest worries about cloud computing and, in fact, has scared many businesses and government entities away from using public clouds that are shared by multiple customers.

Government health agencies that have launched cloud projects say they've made security a high priority.

Alboum said FNS had security concerns about the cloud and was careful to ensure that only publically available information was included in the SNAP Retailer Locator application.

"If they were hosting all the information on the retailers, including private information, then (a public cloud) might not have been the right choice," Alboum said. He added that among the biggest challenges of deploying applications in the cloud is getting people in IT beyond their initial resistance to use this emerging type of computing environment.

"We began with the idea that we would build (and host the application)ourselves; that's what we were used to doing," Alboum said. "Then we realized that we could use a cloud service and not buy servers, but essentially rent them. The team had to get comfortable with that idea."

Burgess said security was a concern at the Air Force division for several reasons, including the need to be compliant with HIPAA regulations about the privacy of healthcare data and the need for protection against hackers who take aim at government systems.

The division wanted to use a cloud service that was certified to be secure.

"We cannot wait two to three years for new technology to be certified," Burgess said. "We need it now. So our intent is that whenever possible, we leverage existing technology that is already DIACAP (DoD Information Assurance Certification and Accreditation Process) certified – if it needs DIACAP certification at all."