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Cloud Computing: 10 Questions For Federal CIO Vivek Kundra

Kundra discuss his thoughts about cloud computing in government, and what it would take to make cloud technologies easier to adopt in the federal space.

J. Nicholas Hoover

June 16, 2009

7 Min Read

Federal CIO Vivek Kundra is well known for innovative approaches to government IT. He introduced Google Apps to the city of Washington, D.C. when he was its CTO of back in 2007.

He's brought with him to the federal government a philosophy that cloud computing could save money, facilitate faster procurement and deployment of technologies, and allow government agencies to concentrate more on strategic IT projects.

InformationWeek sat down with him at his office last week to discuss his thoughts about cloud computing in government, and what it would take to make cloud technologies easier to adopt in the federal space.

InformationWeek: The President's 2010 budget request mentions cloud computing pilot projects. Give us a bit more context around those.

Federal CIO Vivek Kundra: One of the biggest challenges has been that agencies and departments have thought and spent money vertically, yet technology is most effective when it's implemented horizontally in terms of fundamentally transforming business processes.

The other challenge that it used to be people would come to work and have access to the greatest technologies, because the government and the corporate environment [were] investing in technologies that were leading edge. Now, we've been left behind and we're seeing massive innovation happening in the consumer space.

Part of that budget in cloud computing is to leverage platforms that are free [and] make sure we look at cloud computing in terms of platforms, which can be deployed horizontally across the government.

The cloud computing investment in the 2010 budget reflects the administration's desire to drive down costs, drive innovation across the federal government, [and] make sure we're making available technologies to the workforce that may be available to them elsewhere.

InformationWeek: Are you setting aside money in the 2010 federal budget for this?

Kundra: If you looked at some of the things the GSA [General Services Administration] has come out with, whether the RFI or the summit on cloud computing, those are ideas being fleshed out as we speak. As we get closer to October, project plans and specific funding out of $33 million dollars [in the budget request] will be determined.

InformationWeek: What are these pilots and what are you trying to do with them?

Kundra: We're trying to turn this into a scaling problem, and we're trying to make sure that we're looking at the lowest common denominator across all agencies, very simple tools like blogs, and video, and lightweight workflow platforms or public participation platforms.

Kundra [cont.]: The key is to make that available to the federal government in a way that's easy and handles security up front in that you bake security requirements into the architecture. The goal is to make it as simple as, if you in your personal life wanted to sign up for an e-mail or photo-sharing platform or storage online, from the time you submit your credit card, the service will be provisioned real-time.

Why can't we do that with all agencies? Why can't we make sure we have infrastructure and platforms that are FISMA-certified [Federal Information Security Management Act of 2002] up front? Why can't we make sure procurement processes have been followed and provisioning issues around making sure we can provision these platforms real-time are addressed.

We're moving from this notion of 'here's a schedule' to the notion of 'here's a platform that can be provisioned real-time.' How do we provide those services? That's what we're working on. But it's about moving away from having schedules and this idea of GSA as an entity that has a bunch of schedules, but there's no center of gravity when it comes to information technology across the federal government. This allows us to create a center of gravity.

InformationWeek: So are you working with GSA closely to help them become that center of gravity?

Kundra: We're working very closely with GSA to be that center of gravity.

InformationWeek: What does that mean? What do you have to do with them, develop a new way for dealing with IT?

Kundra: That means one, looking at policy issues around information security. FISMA is a perfect example. Today, every agency has to get their own certification and accreditation even if they are using the same set of technologies. Imagine how much money we could save if we were able to have a central place where you could get certification and inherit those rights.

Second is actually creating a storefront that will be agency-facing, that agencies could, with the same ease that consumers do it, provision services.

Third is the underlying technology and rolling out platforms, making sure those platforms are scalable and elastic, so as agencies want to invest in technologies, they're able to do that and scale rapidly, rather than spending money on contracts where you're provisioning something where you're using only 10% of capacity.

InformationWeek: What about the internal cloud-like technologies? The Defense Information Systems Agency is building its own private cloud, for example. Does there need to be a centralized platform in government?

Kundra: The approach will be one that recognizes different requirements for various agencies. If the FAA needs to focus on a goal such as air traffic control across the country, that's very specific, versus if they're thinking about a platform for collaboration, which is a lowest common denominator. What is common across all different agencies?

Internally, we will be developing and launching a common platform so GSA becomes a center for providing these services, so you're not going around building platforms and replicating it in other data centers.

At the same time, we need to make sure we focus on open architecture. Open architecture is vital for information sharing, for collaboration down the line.

InformationWeek: Does GSA in some ways need to transform itself to a shared services organization, and will GSA then be managing data centers under that plan?

Kundra: That's part of that equation, and I'm looking forward to working with the new administrator to look at what GSA needs to do.

InformationWeek: Do you agree with criticism that all of IT in government has to be procured just as if the government was buying an aircraft carrier, and that's not the way we should be doing IT?

Kundra: If you look at the processes, if it takes 18 months to 2 years to go through procurement, you've already missed one revolution, one cycle. If we can abstract the procurement processes, security, architecture, provisioning and they're more focused on leveraging the service that's being provided rather than rolling out technology initiatives, that's where we want to move the federal government toward, and this is going to take time. It's going to take major changes when it comes to public policy and procurement and so forth.

InformationWeek: How long do you see this taking? Do you see this as a three to five year thing to get these processes down right, and are you running into resistance?

Kundra: My first month when I was looking for people to lead these transformational efforts, cloud computing had the most people in terms of the working group. CIOs would like nothing more than to be able to provision technology. Their view is that if we can take care of provisioning, they can provide services rapidly to their customers. The challenges we're going to face are around security, privacy, contracting and there are many other challenges as we move forward. We're working very closely with the procurement community, the privacy community and security community. It will take time, but we're going to begin by rolling out a set of services in the coming months and scale from there.

InformationWeek: When you say a set of services what would you start with?

Kundra: That's forthcoming. The idea there is to start thinking of government as a platform.

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About the Author(s)

J. Nicholas Hoover

Senior Editor, InformationWeek Government

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