DOD's hard line against cloud computing gradually softens

Defense agencies are warming up to cloud computing, but fears still abound in personnel ranks, and serious hurdles still lie ahead.

Not long ago, the idea of giving up physical computer servers and moving important data and functions to a remote, intangible storage center caused panic in the public sector. Defense Department leaders still note that their culture remains a barrier to cloud services and virtualization. But according to a recent survey, those attitudes are slowly loosening as agencies seek to save money and become more efficient.

The question is: Will that attitude shift be enough to implement cloud across the federal government — particularly at a reticent DOD?

“There’s been a lack of credible quantification of some aspects of cloud,” said Paul Garver, CEO of Quest Software, which commissioned a new study on attitudes toward cloud computing though Norwich University, the nation’s oldest private military college. “But we’ve learned a lot from Norwich in this study.”

Even as the federal government appears to be warming to the idea of cloud computing, more than changes in perception are needed — and major caveats remain, particularly for DOD.

Worries about security, organization and strategy prompted DOD CIO Teri Takai to recently caution against moving the department to an all-cloud environment, a warning that echoed throughout a defense IT community eagerly seeking ways to cut costs and streamline operations.

“If we move to a cloud environment with today’s technology, it would make the world worse, not better…from an enterprise perspective [and] from a security perspective. We’re still at stage one,” Takai said.

However, the cloud movement shows no signs of slowing. At DOD, escalating budget struggles are driving cloud and virtualization because of the cost savings achieved by streamlining hardware requirements, increasing server usage rates and decreasing energy spent on running the machines, Garver said.

Another catalyst for DOD’s cloud implementation and virtualization is improved mission support. The technologies provide more dynamic provisioning of resources, especially for research, testing and development environments, Garver said.

However, uncertainty and challenges lie ahead. A majority of survey respondents said security problems are a critical barrier to implementing a public cloud solution, with more than 62 percent citing vulnerability to security breaches as the biggest impediment to implementation.

For private clouds, which along with hybrid options would likely be DOD’s choice for cloud use, the primary concerns were upfront costs and lack of in-house expertise along with security fears.

At DOD, the lack of in-house expertise could become visible with management needs for an increasingly complicated IT architecture that would emerge from use of private or hybrid clouds. Garver said those problems could be complicated by continuing efforts by DOD to increase insourcing.

"Newly emerging technologies such as private and hybrid cloud are initially in high demand and require special expertise; thus, they incur above average industry costs," Garver said. "The net result is that the government will continue its drive for insourcing standard IT and will look to the outside experts — the integrator community — to fulfill expertise in private and hybrid cloud."

Although Garver is optimistic about the future of cloud computing in the federal sector, he agrees with Takai that implementation should be taken slowly.

“Cloud came on like a wave, adopted by the government as if not the whole answer then at least a big part of the answer…we have to get beyond that, beyond ‘it’s good’ to the operation of cloud solutions. It’s not an overnight thing,” Garver said.

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