Cloud Computing: Faster Acquisition Key To Recognizing Value

Alongside other, similar efforts, a new federal working group is aiming to streamline IT acquisition cycles to facilitate the government's move to the cloud.
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Flexibility and speed of deployment are two of the key positive attributes of cloud computing, but government's often lengthy technology acquisition and deployment cycle could blunt those benefits beyond recognition. To help ameliorate the problem, the government is looking for new ways to speed up cloud procurement, last week holding the first meeting of a Cloud Computing Executive Steering Committee working group on the subject.

"This is critical to us to make it easier to buy cloud services," Bill Lewis, director of GSA's Portfolio Management Division, said Wednesday in an interview after participating in a panel discussion at a cloud computing conference in Washington, D.C. "You can't say cloud is better because you can get in and out faster and then have to spend three months arguing." Lewis pointed to an internal GSA study indicating that large acquisitions average two years from pre-solicitation notice to award.

"It does me no good if I can stand up a server in two hours in the cloud if it takes me 16 months to procure it," Customs and Border Protection CTO Wolfe Tombe said at the conference.

In addition to the multi-agency working group, which Lewis says is "still in embryonic stages," a number of other efforts are already underway to try to make provisioning of cloud services a much speedier proposition. Services from GSA's infrastructure-as-a-service blanket purchase agreement will make their way toward easy web-based purchasing on by July. The FedRAMP standard security certification and authorization scheme is due out in its final form in October. And the National Institute of Standards and Technology is working on cloud standards.

As for the working group itself, Lewis said he expects the group will likely reach out to the industry and others for help coming up with proposed solutions, which might range from new acquisition vehicles to a library of standard contract terms for cloud acquisitions to detailed information on how to buy cloud services through existing contract vehicles.

Information for agencies about contracting could be especially helpful, regardless of where they come from. "I was sitting here reflecting on how difficult and time consuming it is to put out a contract or procurement today, and our procurement offices are chronically understaffed, so they haven't even started to understand the concept," U.S. Marshals Service CIO Lisa Davis said at the conference. "So, if I said, 'we're going to put out an RFP on cloud,' they'd look at me like I had two heads."

Separately, GSA is working toward a long term target of "automating" the buying of cloud services via GSA's own contract vehicles in the manner of many online shopping sites that have virtual shopping carts. While and a few other sites have already adopted this model, Lewis said that there's plenty more work to be done on this front. "Certainly there are places to buy rapidly, but a lot of those systems are designed for discrete, not metered, systems," he said. "GSA is making it easier to buy cloud services, but I think we can do better."

What industry can teach government about IT innovation and efficiency. Also in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek Government: Federal agencies have to shift from annual IT security assessments to continuous monitoring of their risks. Download it now. (Free registration required.)