SaaS: Bailing Out Government IT

But security and lock-in are lingering concerns.

Next year, as directed by the Constitution, the U.S. Census Bureau will enumerate the country's citizens. That can be tricky when some of them want to go unnoticed. But this time the Census Bureau will use software as a service to try to accomplish that task.

The Census Bureau is among an expanding array of government agencies that are subscribing to software as a service instead of buying applications to run on-premises. Every agency expresses concerns about security when it comes to using SaaS. But once potential issues are resolved, the flexibility, ease of deployment and, especially, the cost savings of SaaS make it an intriguing choice for users in government.

At the Census Bureau, JR Wycinski understands that individuals may have political, personal or cultural reasons for not wanting to be added to the agency's database. But his job as a program director is to count them any way he can.

So he's managing outreach programs to local governments and community organizations across the nation using Salesforce.com Inc.'s hosted customer relationship management tools, which replaced a legacy system.

As with any change, this one raised issues. "A big one was security," Wycinski recalls. "It was our main focus."

That's because one of the messages the Census Bureau wants to send to hard-to-count groups is that it can be trusted with the information it collects about people. Any security breach would break that trust. To address those concerns, Census Bureau IT staffers visited Salesforce.com's data centers to review security procedures, and they came away satisfied that the systems were locked down, Wycinski says.

At Voice of America, an international broadcasting service funded by the U.S. government, John Johnson, manager of Internet services, says moving from on-premises Web content management software to a pilot of an online service from San Francisco-based Clickability Inc. raised similar security concerns. "There's no acceptable risk," he says.

But Johnson says the fact that Clickability's data center has SAS 70 Type II certification helped reassure VOA that the SaaS offering would be safe.

Not surprisingly, the Defense Information Systems Agency takes data security very seriously. When it decided to make the move to cloud-based computing, it created its own private cloud running on one of the Defense Department's internal networks, says Henry Sienkiewicz, technical program director at DISA.

Security is the No. 1 impediment to SaaS adoption by government agencies, says Robert Ames, deputy chief technology officer at IBM Federal. Right behind that comes fear of lock-in. Ames says agencies worry that if they deploy software in public cloud systems or use a SaaS vendor, they'll be left holding the bag if the company goes under.

That was a concern at VOA, where Johnson says managers did an extensive review of Clickability's business plans and had many long talks with customers before signing on. Even so, he says, "if they go out of business, we'd be out of luck."

John Curran, CTO at ServerVault Corp., a managed IT services provider in Dulles, Va., says government SaaS adoption is also slowed by a lack of clear direction from the top federal IT managers about whether to pursue SaaS offerings and, if so, which are acceptable.

For example, Curran says agencies need to have policies that clarify whether unclassified data and applications can be stored in cloud-based data centers that are not fully compliant with the Federal Information Security Management Act.

"They need guidance," he says. But he adds that it should be coming soon from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Federal CIO Council.

Such concerns have limited federal adoption of SaaS and cloud computing to about 11% of government agencies, according to a ScienceLogic LLC survey of 104 government employees attending at the FOSE 2009 conference in March. But even so, another 11% of the respondents said they will be trying it to one degree or another in the coming year.

Despite federal IT professionals' unease with SaaS and cloud computing and their relative unfamiliarity with the technology compared with their counterparts in private industry, it's interesting that the FOSE 2009 poll shows that the percentage of federal agencies using SaaS will double in one year. That's because of another statistic from the survey: 47% of agencies represented by FOSE 2009 attendees expect budget cuts due to the economy. SaaS and cloud technology are becoming the only economical way for the government to pursue some IT initiatives.

Sienkiewicz says DISA's creation of the Rapid Access Computing Environment, a cloud-based, on-demand virtual hardware and software stack for military application developers, has pared his costs substantially. He says he's been able to pass along the savings to users in the form of a 10% price cut for those DISA services.

"The ROI has been exceptional," Sienkiewicz says.

And Johnson reports that "for the exact same services and capabilities," VOA is saving 30% of what it was paying for the packaged application.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency uses SaaS for customer-facing services such as FAQs. Tom Maloney, associate branch chief in the EPA CIO's office, says that by using a service from RightNow Technologies Inc. in Bozeman, Mont., his team cut $170,000 in annual costs by reducing the amount of time contractors need to spend managing FAQs.

RightNow's FAQ tools cut e-mail queries by 70%, Maloney says, adding, "We had five years of savings in the first year."

Karen Schneider, manager of the Energy Star Web site for the U.S. Department of Energy, has been using RightNow's FAQ management tools for two years. She says that despite a huge increase in Energy Star traffic due to interest in DOE policies such as energy tax credits, she has been able to reduce the size of the staff that handles citizen queries by one-eighth.

More Than Money

Cutting costs always resonates with people, but SaaS offers other benefits, too. VOA's Johnson says that, with only two programmers on staff to work on a Web content management deployment, it would have taken a very long time to get any project done with the on-premises application. But the Clickability pilot is on an aggressive timeline, with a full rollout set for June. That plan is going forward despite the difficulties of implementing the system in various languages that use a range of character sets and can read left to right or right to left. If the pilot goes well, the Clickability service will likely displace the on-premises app for content in all 45 languages in use at VOA.

"We definitely like the time-to-market of software as a service," Johnson says.

Schneider praises the flexibility RightNow gives her to quickly change content without fiddling with HTML code. She says that's important during seasonal transitions, like when she needs to replace Energy Star data on furnaces with information about air conditioners.

For the Census Bureau, both speed of deployment and flexibility were big pluses. Wycinski says getting 700 employees nationwide on the service has gone smoothly. It's too early to say whether Salesforce.com's service will help deliver a complete count, but Wycinski says the hosted software will help the bureau analyze the effectiveness of various programs.

"There's lots of flexibility in generating more advanced reports than we had before," he says. "Anything we can measure, we will."

As with so many government agencies, the Census Bureau is starting to count on SaaS to get the people's work done faster and cheaper.

Hall is a freelance writer in Oregon. Contact him at mark.everett.hall@me.com.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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