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The good and bad of government in the cloud

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Earlier this week US chief information officer Vivek Kundra rolled out a new programme for the American government known as

The portal site will allow those working in federal agencies to browse various web-based services and ultimately purchase and implement cloud computing systems for use in federal agencies.

Kundra and others within the Obama administration hope that the programme will pay big dividends by not only modernising IT for many agencies, but cutting down on the operational costs associated with installing and maintaining on-site hardware and software.

If successful in the US, such a programme is likely to be adopted in the UK and throughout Europe. Such programmes could create new opportunities within the IT sector, but could also raise new dangers and potential headaches.

Among the most excited parties over the launch are cloud computing developers. Companies such as Google and are hopeful that the programme could bring a windfall of lucrative government contracts. Given the economic crisis that has been devastating the industry over the past year, such deals could bring a welcome injection of cash into the sector.

Additionally, the move to cloud computing could open the door to smaller developers. One of the lesser-known advantages to cloud computing is the low barrier of entry for start-ups.

As cloud platforms by nature require little hardware investment for developers, start-up costs can be kept to a minimum and in some cases new companies can be funded with 'boot-strap' cash rather than large amounts of upfront investment. Given the highly specialised nature of many government systems, a market for niche developers and smaller start-ups could quickly em erge.

Software developers are not the only ones excited by the move. As more agencies go to the cloud, more hardware to support that cloud is needed, and the companies that provide that hardware could see major benefits. Remote database hosting firms that already work with government agencies, such as Terremark, are salivating at the possibility of hosting cloud computing services for federal agencies.

Additionally, the builders of the hardware have to be pleased with the idea of selling more high-margin server systems to host the growing demand for cloud computing systems.

Even IT consultants and service providers could see benefits from the programme. Migrating from in-house systems to a hosted platform is no small task, and the process is likely to mean more work for service and support providers.

The government agencies themselves also hope to reap financial rewards. The immediate gains are expected to come from the move itself. Going to cloud computing allows agencies to save on everything from licensing costs to electricity bills.

Over the long term, agencies also hope to save money through the flexibility afforded by cloud systems. Because cloud systems do not require customers to own the actual hardware, costs for things such as storage can be flexible. When demand increases, storage can be upped, and when demand decreases storage can be scaled down.

The gains from the move are not, however, without their pitfalls. While the benefits for the government move to cloud computing continue to pile up, new worries also emerge.

Among the most immediate issues are security and compliance. Federal agencies often work with sensitive information ranging from personal health and criminal records to documents on military strategy and national security.

The prospect of having such information stored offsite on a third-party server and accessible remotely via a cloud computing interface is an idea that worries even the most hardened of security experts, and many within the community remain unsure about the overall effectiveness of cloud security.

Then there's the problem that seems to plague every government agency on the planet: waste. On everything from police cars to social programmes to simple hardware purchases, government agencies are notorious for needlessly tossing away cash.

If a cloud computing rush does occur among federal agencies, strict oversight may need to be put in place. With everyone looking to adopt cloud systems, a significant amount of overlap in purchases could occur and money may be needlessly wasted on new service purchases and implementations.

Then there are the integration headaches. As it is, government agencies have a hard time keeping tabs on various copies of paper files, let alone the varying file types for software documents. As some agencies begin to move to the cloud and others don't migrate or migrate to a different platform, the act of sharing files between agencies could become an even bigger mess.

Ultimately, however, those issues should work themselves out. Security firms are already hard at work on cloud solutions, and though the initial process of moving to hosted services and integrated them will be tough, eventually those issues will be worked out and cloud systems should ultimately be even more compatible than software-based offerings.

Over the long haul, the move to cloud services should prove to be a sound one. In the meantime, however, the business of government IT management both in the US and abroad could get very, very messy.
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