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Federal agencies have taken to the clouds

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Federal agencies embracing cloud services, though in a different fashion than private enterprises.

The U.S. government is encountering the same technological innovations as the private sector, forcing decision-makers to adapt if they want to survive. The IT landscape is becoming highly diverse and complex during these changes, especially as cloud computing technologies continue to emerge. Rather than relying on old phone systems and other legacy communication platforms, federal agencies have been given the unique opportunity to outsource collaborative resources. The same can be said for storage, analytics and virtually every other aspect of IT.

During the past several years, there has been an increasing amount of pressure on government decision-makers to move away from traditional stand-alone computing practices and embrace innovative cloud solutions. Although there have been numerous contributors to this transformation, the opportunity to reduce management complications during the consumerization of IT is often cited as the most important. This is largely because people are using mobile technologies more frequently than ever before, encouraging government agencies to follow the private sector in its pursuit of supporting a remote workforce.

Still, federal agencies have different priorities than enterprises. This was highlighted in a recent IDC Government Insights report, which revealed that U.S. federal spending on private cloud services is forecast to reach $1.7 billion in 2014 and grow to $7.7 billion by 2017.

Similar to the happenings in the business world, analysts revealed that federal bodies have prioritized the private cloud over its public counterpart. This is largely because of the private cloud's promises to provide more control and security over public cloud solutions. This means that a private hosted PBX solution, for example, will be easier to maintain in a private environment because there will be less opportunity for outside traffic to disrupt efficiency.

Unlike the private sector that has embraced Software as a Service most often, however, public agencies have put Infrastructure as a Service in the leading cloud spot, IDC reported. In fact, the IaaS market in the U.S. government is expected to grow to $5.4 billion between 2013 and 2017, compared to SaaS, which is only expected to increase to $2.4 billion during the same time.

"There are clear indications that fiscal year 2014 will continue to be a flat year for cloud computing investments. Yet beyond that, growth potential looks bright. Investments should reach a critical mass around 2015 and beyond. A new emphasis on cloud solutions is expected to return within the next 18 months, and private cloud investments should approach $7.7 billion by [fiscal year] 2017," said Shawn McCarthy, research director at IDC Government Insights.

For federal agencies to deploy the cloud successfully, decision-makers need to overcome several key impediments that could otherwise take away some of the effect the cloud has on government operations.

Overcoming cloud inertia

A report by research firm Ovum revealed that there are still some obstacles that federal decision-makers need to conquer if they are to experience the full potential of the cloud. For the most part, agencies have the tendency to encounter one of two problems: Type I issues involve organizations implementing cloud services that are not effective, while type II occurrences concern keeping legacy solutions in place when a move to the cloud would have been more effective. The latter is particularly true regarding communication, as many federal bodies continue to use antiquated office phone systems instead of adopting a hosted solution.

"Ovum recommends that a government cloud services policy should aim to fairly state the potential transformational benefits of cloud services and create a level playing field for agency adoption, mindful of the practical and long-term costs to government of both type I and type II procurement errors," said Steve Hodgkinson, research director at Ovum.

Hodgkinson asserted that there is no particular technology known as "the cloud." Instead, there are only cloud services offered through experienced and trustworthy vendors. Because there is such diversity in these solutions, however, decision-makers need to understand their particular objectives and how leveraging one or multiple cloud-based tools will enable them to meet these goals.

Additionally, Hodgkinson warned federal agencies to recognize that type II errors are just as bad - if not worse - than type I problems. This means that organizations that continue to use legacy services when a cloud solution is available are more prone to more significant performance and availability issues. These characteristics will make it more difficult for firms to stay competitive with the evolving IT landscape.

There is no doubt that the cloud promises to introduce significant performance benefits for the public sector, especially when organizations consider replacing old phone systems with cloud VoIP offerings or some other hosted communications platform. By taking the time to understand the various cloud offerings available, federal decision-makers can implement the tools that best align with their long-term goals and capabilities.