One of the IT industry’s big experiments -- the use of commercial cloud services by federal agencies -- is about to get underway. But this high-potential launch is already off to an inauspicious start, with key vendors such as IBM and Google absent from the lineup and obscure specialists serving as lead contractors.
After more than a year of planning, the General Services Administration last month released the names of 20 companies that will be providing infrastructure as a service (IaaS) through Apps.gov, its cloud computing portal. The offerings -- virtual servers, cloud storage, and on-demand Web hosting -- are “coming soon,” according to GSA.
How this plays out could have long-term implications for both federal IT operations and the commercial cloud market. At federal CIO Vivek Kundra’s prompting, government agencies are looking for cloud solutions, so it’s a ready-made market if cloud vendors are able to deliver solutions that meet the government’s security and performance requirements.
Yet the first round of vendors approved to provide those services is surprising, both for who’s in and who’s out. IBM, Google, Rackspace, and Terremark are conspicuously absent from the GSA's list of cloud vendors, which combined into 11 teams.
To see Who’s Who among GSA’s approved list of cloud service providers, check out our image gallery here.
As you would expect, some of the heavyweights of the cloud services market made it through GSA’s vetting process. Amazon, AT&T, Dell, Microsoft, Savvis, and Verizon will all be delivering on-demand IT resources through Apps.gov. Among major defense contractors, General Dynamics Information Technology is in the mix.
However, some lesser known tech companies -- Autonomic Resources, Computer Literacy World, Computer Technologies Consultants, and Eyak Technology -- have also been given a green light by GSA to provide cloud services to federal agencies and departments.
If you’ve never heard of those companies, that’s because they’re specialists that qualify for government contacts as small, in some cases “disadvantaged,” businesses. Anchorage-based Eyak Technology, for example, is owned by native Alaskans of the Eyak tribe.
Because they get special consideration for government work, these small businesses can serve as a ticket in the door to federal contracts for larger, more established tech vendors. Thus, Dell has piggybacked on Autonomic Resources to offer IaaS on Apps.gov, and three other vendors -- Electrosoft, XO Communications, and Secure Networks -- have teamed with Computer Literacy World.
Just how these partnerships of convenience work in practice remains to be seen. Do these small businesses have the experience required to deliver secure, reliable, and scalable cloud services to Uncle Sam? Their track records in the cloud services market -- if they exist at all -- are hard to ascertain.
I tried to get background information on Computer Literacy World, but I was unable to find a company Web site and the company didn’t return my phone call. I did get through to XO Communications -- one of Computer Literacy World’s partners -- but XO didn't respond to my questions about Computer Literacy World. Nor, for that matter, did XO comment on its own role in the cloud alliance.
(Computer Literacy World already offers cloud storage, data transfer bandwidth, and virtual servers on Apps.gov as “business processes.” It remains to be seen if the company’s IaaS services will be new and different. My guess is they’re not.)
The risk of course is that the cloud services offered on Apps.gov will fall short of government requirements because they’re being offered by prime contractors with little cloud experience and/or in newly formed alliances where partners are stitching together cloud services for the first time. At a pivotal time in federal adoption of commercial cloud services, there’s little margin for error.