The most interesting cloud computing I saw this week was the announcement that the General Services Administration (GSA) has awarded 11 companies the opportunity to participate in the apps.gov portal, offering IaaS services.
The list of companies is an interesting mix, including cloud pioneer Amazon, large companies like Verizon, defense contractors like General Dynamics, and relatively small players. Almost all of the awarded contracts are offered via a joint venture arrangement between two or more players, typically one with technology and one with government knowledge and experience.
This award has been a long time coming. Apps.gov has been up for over a year, offering SaaS services. If you're not familiar with apps.gov, it's a portal, sponsored by the GSA, that allows government agencies (including state and local entities) to obtain cloud computing services on-demand with the contracts and due diligence already performed and in place. The IaaS portion of the award process was put out for bid and then withdrawn, to be released for bid once more. So the IaaS portion of the portal is finally, at long last, underway (the awardees still have to complete a FISMA (Federal security regulation) Certification and Accreditation process before finally being ready to do business via the portal).
Apps.gov reduces the burden for agencies that want to use cloud computing but don't want to take the time (or don't have the ability) to perform assessments and contract negotiations on their own. And, presumably, the GSA obtained very favorable pricing by combining all of those entities' demand. This allows individual government agencies to save even more by taking advantage of cloud computing via the apps.gov portal.
So, the awards mean that, subject to the FISMA process, government agencies will have immediate, on-demand access to IaaS services. What will that mean? Here are five things that Federal (and state and local) agencies should expect:
1. More adoption than they foresee
I wrote about the way on-demand IaaS has been driven by developers. The government employs lots of developers and contracts to companies with tons of developers. Now that developers will have an approved method of using on-demand IaaS, look for a onslaught. A year ago I spoke with several members of the Federal Cloud Computing Steering Committee and shared that they should expect a ton of use once IaaS went up on apps.gov. Just as commercial software engineers have embraced AWS as a low-friction way to develop systems, once an approved government IaaS offering is available, the same phenomenon will occur.
2. An enormous acceleration to application development
People used to everything taking forever react to on-demand IaaS with a dumbfounded look, amazed that resources can be so easily obtained. Once you clear out all the endless, time-consuming back-and-forth necessary in most environments to obtain resources, it's astonishing how much more productive people become.
3. Lots of confusion
To its credit, the Federal government is being extremely aggressive about cloud computing. The Department of Defense has its RACE cloud. The Department of Interior is building a cloud, with the vision of sharing it with other agencies. There are undoubtedly many more cloud construction initiatives underway as well. Inevitably, some of the "private vs. public" cloud controversy will adhere to the decision process regarding which cloud offering to use. Moreover, just the plethora of choices tends to induce paralysis by analysis.
4. An ongoing challenge to developers
Creating elastic, scalable apps doesn't just happen. New design patterns need to be applied to allow applications to gracefully grow and shrink without operations personnel getting involved in software installation and configuration. There's a learning curve to getting the hang of creating cloud apps, and that curve affects every group in application development. From this perspective, having an easy onramp to IaaS resources like apps.gov can make it easier to experiment with these new design patterns and provide an ideal learning environment.
5. An ongoing challenge to process
Applications developed on the apps.gov IaaS with the belief that "it's just for the dev and test part of the project" will naturally end up becoming production applications--especially once the realization sinks in that the application that has been developed now has to go back through the tedious and lengthy 'official' release to production process. The temptation to just get started, perhaps with the rationalization that "we're just testing it as a prototype" will be impossible to resist. I've written about this challenge several times, and if you haven't seen our video on the "cloud boomerang," discussing the unforeseen return of applications to unprepared operations groups, you might find it helpful.
The Federal Government really deserves a hat tip for its aggressive pursuit of cloud computing (and not a moment too soon: it just announced that it has found another 1000 data centers that heretofore were unaccounted for!). The apps.gov offering is an outstanding initiative and should be acknowledged as a signal achievement. I'm looking forward to when the first offering gets through FISMA.
Bernard Golden is CEO of consulting firm HyperStratus, which specializes in virtualization, cloud computing and related issues. He is also the author of "Virtualization for Dummies," the best-selling book on virtualization to date.
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