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Census Mulls Counting On The Cloud

As it prepares for the 2010 enumeration, the U.S. Census Bureau is tapping the cloud for software-as-a-service and Web hosting.

As it rapidly readies itself to count everyone in the country, the U.S. Census Bureau has tentatively begun tapping cloud computing to reduce the cost and accelerate delivery of its services to its employees and the public.

Though census planning is a 10-year effort, the actual census takes place over only a few months. The Census Bureau is in the early stages of hiring and fingerprinting some 1.4 million temporary workers, establishing 500 temporary census offices, and leveraging 170,000 partners -- from Home Depot to small churches -- that will become local voices of census evangelism.

By the time all is said and done, the Census Bureau will mail out 600 million forms and count about 340 million people and 130 million households before quickly ramping down. According to Census CIO Brian McGrath, budgets will be quickly slashed once the census is over, forcing the bureau to think now about how to save money over the mid-term.

This type of effort would pose challenges to any organization and will create a major, if temporary, burden on the bureau's IT infrastructure. McGrath and the bureau are alleviating the problem via, among other things, a few cloud services. However, although McGrath sees great promise for the cloud, Census is starting small.

Today, much of the work in the cloud is limited to software-as-a-service, Web hosting, and early planning for the Census Bureau's private cloud infrastructure, but McGrath says he's already seeing the benefits.

For example, the bureau recently decided to use Salesforce.com for its Integrated Partner Contact Database, which stores information on every one of the bureau's 170,000 partners.

The database had initially been scoped to be built and deployed in-house, but after problems with that contract, the effort was scrapped. Needing to do something quickly, the bureau decided to use Salesforce.com. The database was up and running in 6 weeks -- an incredibly short time period for the government, which often spends months or years scoping and building systems.

The 2010 U.S. Census Web site also makes use of cloud services, specifically, from Akamai. Census.gov averages 1 million daily hits, but it was unclear to the bureau what kind of traffic the 2010 Census Web site would get. The bureau decided it needed something that could handle spikes in the traffic, and decided to partner with Akamai. Today, 99% of its hits are serviced by Akamai's content delivery network, never even reaching Census' infrastructure.

Much of the rest of Census' cloud strategy remains in early stages. For example, the agency is still in the midst of a major consolidation and virtualization effort, heading toward what will eventually be a multi-tenant architecture inside its own data center. It's already got some of its base in a blade-based SAN architecture and several virtual Windows farms, and McGrath sees 88% of Census' 450 Linux servers as good candidates for virtualization.

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