The federal government IT budget currently runs at about $80 billion. That enormous sum reflects the wide variety of departments and agencies within, each of which operates their own series of networks on independent servers staffed with individual IT teams. It's a problem that seems inherent with “big” government: too many different hands operating too many different levers at once costs money. But according to former and first Chief Information Officer of the United States, Vivek Kundra, it's a problem that can easily be solved by government embracing private cloud computing services.
Kundra, who left his post as CIO this month to receive an academic fellowship from Harvard, recently had an op-ed of his published in the New York Times in which he proposes cloud computing as a sound cost-saving measure for American citizens. In it, he frequently cites the government's efforts under his watch to reduce that $80 billion figure through a focus on switching systems over to the cloud. The General Service Administration for example switched its email service to a cloud server and cut their costs by half. The 2010 Census relied on a private cloud service for updating census-taking technology a decade after the last one was taken, saving money on an independent system design.
Kundra claims the public can save greatly by embracing the cloud on a private level. He mentions Google and Amazon cloud services as possible choices, and says many cloud storage services are either free or offered at low monthly rates. Actual figures are conveniently absent from Kundra's op-ed, though it's obvious savings are possible through cloud technology even if they're modest. One way of looking at it: Kundra's efforts from 2009 to 2011 only shaved off about $3 billion from that $80 billion government IT budget.
Current savings aside, Kundra makes a strong case for why current investment in cloud computing should be made: the cloud computing business is booming. The Gartner research firm projects it will be a $149 billion business by the year 2015. The efficiencies of cloud computing are noticed on a global scale; India and Japan are both taking drastic steps to make a switch to the cloud for their civil systems. Europe is well on their way, and the rest of the world is sure to follow. Kundra's essential concern as a former member of the federal government is that the United States can't afford to be left behind on the race to efficient cloud infrastructure.
The increasing popularity of cloud computing would suggest that savings are a certainty. It's by nature a cheaper system than traditional independent server setups. Yet Kundra claims that there is an “IT cartel” conspiring to keep cloud computing from becoming mainstream. He points to private industries contracted by the government. But are the arguments made by the other side really just the babble of boogeymen, or are they legitimate concerns?
Agencies and departments resistant to a switch to cloud computing chiefly cite security as their main reason for obstructing change. The Defense Department, notorious for their inefficient IT expenditures, remains to be convinced that the cloud is a safe place to store confidential information. The State Department as well as the CIA and other security agencies agree. Kundra claims the cloud service industry will demand a “higher quality” of IT tech and therefore provide improved security. This conflicts with the alleged increase in the cloud computing industry as a whole (where are all the lower quality IT techs going to go?)
There's no real defense for cloud security over the security of traditional independent server centers other than the fact that security in general is more or less similarly weak and vulnerable. This year's repeated cyber attacks on major corporate computer networks, all of which operate 90 percent on traditional systems, goes to show that cyber security remains to be a truly unsolvable issue on every plane of computer infrastructure technology. The cloud might seem a little less secure than a server under your own lock and key, but anything connected to the web is as vulnerable as the next web-connected system.
The savings are obvious, so long as the increased demand for super-security doesn't incite major cost over-runs in the near future. But if such costs occur within the cloud computing industry, they'll certainly occur within traditional models as well. The cloud is simply a more efficient way to do the same things as always. The government seems to be slowly taking the hint. As Kundra seems to suggest, the public is sure to pick up on it quicker.