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Q&A: GSA's CIO Coleman Talks IT Modernization

The CIO of the U.S. General Services Administration discusses cloud computing, plans for funding innovation with a flat IT budget, and the potential for equipping federal employees with new consumer technologies.

InformationWeek: Let's talk about the proposed fiscal 2011 budget. GSA's anticipated budget is essentially flat. Where might there be increased levels of IT investment at GSA and where cuts?

Coleman: As part of our IT modernization and strategic planning process, we're looking at the amount of portfolio investment dollars that go to 'steady state,' or operations and maintenance, versus new and innovative investment, which we refer to as development, modernization, and enhancement. Currently we spend about 83% of our IT budget across the agency on steady state operations and maintenance. We think that's high. We don’t see that we're going to get a lot of new investment dollars for innovative capabilities; rather, we need to invest selectively in initiatives that will free up money from legacy systems to reinvest in new stuff. I said we spend $18 million a year on local phone service for agency employees; by going to VOIP, if we can cut that in half, and we think that's a reasonable assumption, you would have money you can turn back into a subsequent initiative for modernization.

InformationWeek: That's how it's done in the private sector, as you know. Squeeze money from operations and put it into innovation.

Coleman: That's our goal. Over the next three years, we seek to move that balance from 83/17 to 60/40. That's aggressive, a stretch goal, but we think it's appropriate to push ourselves.

InformationWeek: There's an emphasis in the FY 2011 IT budget on centralized provision of IT services. That's what GSA does. Do you see that emphasis having an effect on GSA's role and the services you provide?

Coleman: It certainly plays to GSA's strength and to our competencies and our built-in authorities as the general service provider. We do a lot already including the Networx contract--that's the world's largest telecoms contract--which is a centralized resource for all federal agencies, the e-Travel program, which are the three travel service providers that all agencies are to be using, and HSPD-12 cards on a subscription basis so that each agency need not enter into its own access card contract. We do a lot of these things already and I'm sure that will grow over time, but no specific announcements at this time.

InformationWeek: One area where GSA has been involved in centralized provision of services is cloud computing. I understand there have been some changes in responsibility at GSA. What's changed?

Coleman: When the Obama administration announced cloud computing as a priority, we volunteered to take a lead role because it's well aligned with what we do as a centralized service provider. I've taken a role in chairing the CIO Council executive group that's creating the strategy and coming up with the roadmap. Since then, the GSA Office of Citizen Services, headed by Dr. Dave McClure, has really come up to speed. He's taking over a key element of the cloud initiative, so the Citizen Service group will be managing the program office and the pilot activities and the program budgeting for this year and beyond. I will continue to chair the CIO Council leadership team, that is the governance body of the CIO Council responsible for cloud computing. is a joint effort of several offices at GSA. It's built on the GSA Advantage platform, our e-commerce site; it's the place to go for purchasing services and commodities off the GSA schedules. is a storefront, a new look and feel, built on that underlying platform. That's managed by the Federal Acquisitions Service. The requirements for it were developed by our cloud program team, under the counsel of federal CIO Vivek Kundra.

InformationWeek: What is it that Dave McClure will be involved in that he wasn't before?

Coleman: There is e-gov funding that has been set aside for cloud computing. That budget for cloud computing is going to go toward pilot activities and toward managing the program activities—budget, schedule, deployment issues. Dave's responsible for all of those various work streams. So he has the operational, programmatic, and budgeting side, and my responsibilities are more with the CIO Council and looking at it from a strategic and governance point of view.

InformationWeek: You've been involved in cloud computing since day one. What's your view on cloud services in the federal government—are you bullish or skeptical?

Coleman: I'm bullish, but I don't think cloud computing is the silver bullet to solve all of our IT challenges. It's real. If you look at the way IT operations are conducted, every time there is a new application, a new infrastructure has been created. So you have within one data center, let's say 20 different applications, each of which has its own architecture and is only running at maybe 10% to 20% capacity except for those few moments where demand spikes. You plan for the most demand you need for each system separately, and as a consequence you have huge energy consumption and cooling bills for data centers, which are only growing. Cloud computing offers a way to tap into the same resources for multiple tenants and applications and share the peaks and valleys in demand, so you have much better utilization of resources. It's a greener solution, it's more cost effective, you turn capital investment into operational expenses. You can use what you need, pay for what you consume, and when you no longer need it, you no longer pay for it. There's a huge business and mission value proposition for cloud computing, not only because of cost issues but because of the agility issues.

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