The federal government could be turning a corner as it hastens its transition to the cloud.
In the next phase of that strategy, which began with preliminary moves toward commercial cloud services and applications in the first year of the Obama administration, followed by a "cloud-first" mandate for all new government IT projects that was announced in November 2010, the General Services Administration is seeking to streamline use of the new technologies across departments and agencies engaging cloud brokerage services.
On Thursday, the GSA hosted members of industry here at its office just outside Washington to explain its agenda in looking to cloud brokers, which would serve as something like systems integrators (the GSA does not like the term "middleman"), or liaisons between a government agency and a cloud service provider.
"We're looking for a comprehensive service that can provide federal agencies with whatever they need -- infrastructure, platform, software -- a true brokerage model," said Stan Kaczmarczk, director of the GSA's cloud program management office. "It's one that will allow the federal government to take advantage of the pay-as-you-go [model]."
The GSA has issued a request for information (RFI) -- a preliminary step in the procurement process ahead of a request for proposals -- soliciting advice from industry members about how the cloud-brokerage model could be tailored to serve the needs of government.
The GSA originally set a deadline of Aug. 17 for responses, but Kazcmarczk said that the agency will push that date back and announce a new deadline shortly.
The GSA's consideration of cloud-brokerage services marks the latest effort to achieve a far-reaching overhaul of the nearly $80 billion government IT apparatus. At a time when agency budgets are flat or falling, federal CIOs are facing increased demands from their customers -- other federal workers, state and local agencies and, of course, citizensÂ—for more responsive IT-enabled services.
As a result, officials at the Office of Management and Budget, the CIO Council and other bodies have articulated a number of initiatives and mandates to bring cloud services, mobile technology and other enterprise tools and strategies into the federal government.
"Our current IT ecosystem -- and that's the people, the processes, the technology, the customers, the industry partners, the policies -- they're all in a state of flux and disruptive change," said Kevin Youel Page, acting assistant commissioner of the GSA's Office of Integrated Technology Services.
Page pointed to several of the government's IT priorities that have kept CIOs on the hop, such as the cloud-first mandate, a directive to develop mobility strategies and an ambitious data-center consolidation initiative. And those are just today's challenges.
"It's moving very fast, and before we even get our arms around some of those things, we'll be staring at big data, contextual, and who knows what's next? Artificial intelligence? It's all coming, and it's coming faster than we can imagine," he said.
IT Procurement for Cloud Services
For industry members who might be candidates to provide the government with cloud-brokerage services, the GSA's RFI is an opportunity to get their foot in the door at the earliest stage in what officials described as a potentially radical departure from past habits of IT procurement and management.
The agency is interested in receiving suggestions about how all facets of a cloud-brokerage service contract could be tailored to fit the unique and evolving demands of the federal government. GSA officials appealed for compelling, high-level suggestions for putting the technology in service of their business modelÂ—namely, serving customer needs, controlling costs and lightening the load on in-house IT staffers.
"I would like to bring XaaS to my customers as quickly as possible, as efficiently as possible, with the least bureaucratic impediment to getting their job done," said Mark Day, director of the GSA's Office of Strategic Programs. "This is a learning process for us. We don't have preconceived answers."
But the GSA does have a menu of items it would like to hear prospective cloud brokers address, including security, and how they would navigate the FedRAMP security certification process that has been established for cloud services and applications.
Government IT buyers will be keen to hear from cloud brokers how their contract might be structured, including the service-level agreements with the cloud-serve provider, a thorny issue for government cloud projects. GSA is also looking to hear creative ideas about how to achieve some of the flexibility of the pay-as-you pricing model while still hewing to the budget-planning mandates laid down by the CFO.
Many CIOs have also expressed concern about software licenses. Marcelo Olascoaga, a program executive with GSA's Federal Acquisition Service, explained that agencies have been using database applications from providers like Oracle, Sybase and MySQL for years, and while they are in no hurry to ditch the product, they would love to shed the burden of maintaining the licenses.
"We don't want to manage those licenses anymore," Olascoaga said. "We do want to use the database capabilities, but as a service. So if you as an integrator or even a cloud provider can work with developers and manufacturers of software and get us out of the licensing issue, that would be a great service to us."
Cloud Interoperability and Portability Other key drivers for the government's ongoing drive to the cloud include interoperability and portability. That means that would-be cloud brokerage providers will have to address issues of vendor lock-in, while also describing how their services could be replicated across other agencies.
"The government's moving to the cloud. We don't want each agency to move to the cloud individually, experience the same problems, and have to develop a 'lessons learned' document," Kazcmarczk said. "We want to move to the cloud as a government and really take full advantage of our collective buying power."
"Standardization is what we're talking about here," added Keith Trippie, executive director of the Enterprise System Development Office at the Department of Homeland Security. "Interoperability is just off-the-charts important."
At this early stage in the GSA's exploration of cloud-brokerage services, the agency is leaving it to industry to suggest how the role of the provider should be defined. Day explained that there might be niche categories for brokers who simply serve as commodity buyers, traditional integrators, those who take on a more hands-on advisory role, or others.
But given the strong interest that the GSA has already observed in response to its RFI, the agency expects to be flooded with responses from industry players. Olascoaga appealed for bullet points, and urged respondents not to submit a "sales pitch."
Day echoed that sentiment.
"There's a lot of ways we can break this up, so we really would like your ideas about how this works," Day said. "Our first job is to think about what not to read. Marketing material might be in that category."
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.
Read more about government use of it in CIO's Government use of IT Drilldown.