With next week's presidential election here in the US, the US capitol is about to experience the mother-of-all platform changes, and that's why Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's cloud computing memo, titled "A Platform for the Next Technology Revolution", seems especially well timed.
In the days immediately following the election, the president-elect will dispatch transition teams. And since both Barack Obama and John McCain's campaigns have relied heavily on social-networking sites and other cloud-based services to help their campaigns, these transition teams may come to Washington with a different attitude about what they want from federal IT systems.
That's why next week's US election may create an opportunity for vendors to pitch new technology directions, and cloud services adoption in particular, said Michael Farber, a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, a management consulting firm with a number of federal clients.
Farber said he believes the period following the election will be a fertile time to "structure a pilot and forge a partnership with Google".
Ballmer's memo, which echoed the sweeping, change-is-at-hand message of Bill Gates' 1995 Internet Tidal Wave memo, bundles the cloud, social networking, and the diversity of access devices, to argue that a "dramatic transformation" is taking place in IT. The vendors are already pushing US federal IT managers to adopt some of these changes.
Microsoft and other cloud services providers, including Google, believe their platforms can handle the government's most sensitive material. At a small forum recently that included US government IT managers from the data processing-intensive intelligence community such as one who identified himself (to chuckles from the audience) as from a "non-descript" federal agency, attendees raised questions about the security of cloud services.
The vendors say they can tackle security issues with their cloud services. Following the panel, Ron Markezich, corporate vice president of Microsoft Online, said he believes the company's new cloud platform Windows Azure would meet classified requirements, regardless of if it is in one of Microsoft's data centres or one operated by a partner. The US already uses private data centre providers for some of its classified data processing, he pointed out.
Cloud platforms create opportunities for new kinds of threats, but they may also be harder for someone to develop an exploit for if less open than a server or desktop operating system, panelists said. Michael Nelson, a visiting professor of internet studies at Georgetown University, said what may help cloud providers in developing secure platforms will be their ability to hire workers with an interest in the latest technologies and stock options, not running IT for a grocery chain.
One issue that could pose a problem for cloud providers may be the availability of bandwidth. Nicholas Carr, a panel moderator and author of a recent book on IT's role in the world titled The Big Switch, asked if with web services' increase if the US might become "bandwidth capacity constrained" and require businesses and government to prioritise certain traffic.
Markezich said bandwidth was a "real issue", but said an answer could be less bandwidth-intensive software. Client caching would help as well, he said.
"This view that everything is going to be on the server and nothing is going to be on the client, I don't think is realistic for the world."
At least one federal government IT organisation, the US Defense Information Systems Agency 's, has adopted cloud computing as its internal IT model. The agency adopted a cloud platform for internal use, in part to be make assembling information quickly for soldiers in the field.
CIO John Garing argued this summer that cloud technologies will be the future of military processing.
"We have to get to this standard environment that is provisionable and scalable," he said in a recent interview.