Cloud industry needs to standardize, says fed CIO

HHS CIO wants a way to compare cloud providers

WASHINGTON -- Frank Baitman, the CIO of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), was at the Amazon Web Services conference here praising the company's services. His talk was on the verge of becoming a long infomercial, when he stepped back and changed direction.

Baitman has reason to speak well of Amazon. As the big government system integrators slept, Amazon rushed in with its cloud model and began selling its services to federal agencies. The HHS and Amazon worked together in a real sense.

The agency helped Amazon get an all-important security certification best known by its acronym, FedRAMP, while Amazon moved the agency's health data to the cloud. Amazon was the first large cloud vendor to get the FedRAMP security certification.

"[Amazon] gives us the scalability that we need for health data," said Baitman.

But then he said that while it would "make things simpler and nicer" for the HHS to work solely with Amazon, since the agency did the groundwork to get Amazon federal authorizations, "we also believe that there are different reasons to go with different vendors."

Baitman said that the HHS will be working with other vendors as it has with Amazon.

"We recognize different solutions are needed for different problems," said Baitman. "Ultimately we would love to have a competitive environment that brings best value to the taxpayer and keeps vendors innovating."

To accomplish this, the agency plans to adopt a cloud broker model, an intermediary process that can help government entities identify the best cloud approach for a particular workload. That would give agencies the ability to compare different price points, terms of service and service-level agreements.

To make comparisons possible, Baitman said the vendors will have to "standardize in those areas that we evaluate cloud on."

About 2,500 people had registered to attend the Amazon Web Services Worldwide Public Sector Summit, and it certainly looked like that many people had showed up at the Washington Convention Center. It was a big leap in attendance for the event, which drew about 900 attendees last year, 300 in 2011 and just 50 in 2010, said Teresa Carlson, vice president of worldwide public sector operations at Amazon Web Services.

Amazon Web Services has about 200 federal government users, and they use Amazon's cloud to handle a variety of workloads, including websites, communication and collaboration tools, and SharePoint systems, as well as workloads related to the Mars mission and, increasingly, big data analytics projects, said Carlson. Amazon also hosts some intelligence agency workloads and is competing to get a CIA cloud contract.

Carlson said that, based on federal security requirements, theoretically as many as 80% of the government's workloads could run in an Amazon cloud environment.

For government users, Amazon runs what it calls a GovCloud Region, which includes a cluster of data centers forming an "availability zone." The only private-sector businesses that can be part of the GovCloud region are those that directly support the government workloads.

Carlson credits the Obama administration's first CIO, Vivek Kundra, who was appointed in 2009, with initiating the federal shift to the cloud.

The government market "is an important market," said Carlson. When Kundra came out with a "cloud-first strategy," she said, "we felt like that was an opportunity to work with this customer."

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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