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.