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.