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Cloud Computing "Front and Center" at BSA CTO Forum

An Exclusive Interview with BSA CEO Robert Holleyman

The promise of Cloud Computing government is real. Recognizing this, the Washington, DC-based Business Software Alliance focused its recent CTO Forum on Cloud Computing and its challenges in becoming more integrated into government IT.

The forum has been held annually for the past several years, and this year included CIOs and CTOs of several key IT companies (including IBM, CA Technologies, Dell, Symantec, Microsoft, and Sybase), as well as two US senators who "get" IT and are proponents for its effective use in government, Sen.Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

I got a chance to interview the Alliance's President and CEO, Robert Holleyman, after the event's conclusion.

This was the Sixth Annual CTO Forum. How has the focus changed over the past five years?

BSA's annual CTO Forums are sort of like small-scale Davos events in that they bring together top technologists from the private sector for high-level discussions with their federal counterparts. The focus of discussion varies from year to year depending on which issues have the greatest potential at that time to advance or hinder technological innovation. In past years, topics have included technological standards-setting, policies covering privacy and data security, and the implications of government's role in the market as large-scale purchaser of information technologies.

This year, Cloud Computing was front and center. The main question on the table was: How can federal agencies make the best use of cloud computing solutions to cut costs and improve government performance? BSA member-company CTOs offered insights for federal CIOs deciding how and when to move into the cloud. They also discussed with policy-makers the outlines of a federal policy approach that would promote unfettered innovation in the cloud while the technology is in its crucial early stages of development and adoption.

It seems that Cloud can offer great benefits in terms of performance and efficiencies to government agencies. Yet you had mentioned there is a sort-of performance gap between how innovative IT is used in business vs. its use in government. Could you outline the dimensions of that gap for us?

The IT revolution has boosted productivity in the private economy in the last two decades at twice the rate of the 1970s and 80s. (See: http://www.bls.gov/lpc/prodybar.htm.) But government has mostly missed the wave. Federal Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients describes the dimensions of the problem by pointing to examples such as the Department of Veterans affairs processing claims by hand while veterans wait months for benefits.

The top technologists in the Obama administration - including Zients, Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra, and others - are acutely aware of the need to close this performance gap. They are looking to cloud technologies as part of the answer. They see opportunities for cloud solutions to help squeeze waste from the federal government's nearly $82 billion IT budget while also boosting performance - for example, by consolidating data centers.

Cloud solutions may also help federal agencies deploy new versions of software and IT infrastructure at a pace closer to that of companies in the private sector yet still within the constraints of the tightly prescribed federal budgeting and procurement process.

"I've written about this recently on our blog, BSA TechPost."

(See: http://blog.bsa.org/2010/09/30/closing-governments-it-performance-gap)

What major aspects of security were discussed during the roundtable this year?

There were two main topics of discussion around security issues. The first was the importance of avoiding prescriptive technology mandates from government. Security threats evolve quickly, so technology developers need freedom to evolve just as quickly. Private-sector technologists believe this is especially important in the cloud, since the technology is still in its early stages of development.

The second big topic of discussion was cybersecurity legislation that is pending in Congress. BSA member companies - and top officials in the Obama administration - strongly support cybersecurity legislation that is crafted to avoid locking in technology mandates. Instead, we support an approach that is strictly risk-based. It should apply the right kind and level of security to each system and type of data. That means we need policies that preserve the flexibility of each company to do the right thing."

The Federal government is the single largest IT purchaser in the US, with a combined budget of more than $80 billion. What potential is there, and what measures can government take to optimize this spend in terms of buying available solutions rather than developing expensive, custom solutions?

As I mentioned earlier, one important opportunity that the administration's technologists are eyeing is the potential to consolidate the federal government's data centers (there were more than 2,000 at last count) and employ cloud architecture to operate them more efficiently - and thereby do more with less. Another way cloud solutions might be able to help government optimize its IT spending is by making it easy for large federal organizations to quickly roll out new versions and upgrade computing platforms and IT infrastructure.

Those sorts of rollouts and upgrades can otherwise be big undertakings in large originations - and in government, that can be doubly true because, as I've written on BSA's blog, federal budgeting practices require that investments in technology have built-in pay-back periods to ensure that purchases return their promised value before they are replaced or upgraded.

Those are sensible requirements, of course. But in practice, information technologies like software can deliver value - and new versions can come to market offering greater value - at a quicker pace than procurement guidelines might contemplate. So agencies may not be able to upgrade their software or other information technologies as fast as the rest of the market, and they miss out on potential productivity gains."

You had two very savvy senators (Democratic Sen. Mark Warner and Republican Sen. Susan Collins from Maine) participate in this year's panel. What were there topline issues and concerns?

The one-word answer would be "cybersecurity." The longer answer would also include related issues such as privacy and technological innovation.

Senator Collins has co-sponsored one of the main cybersecurity bills up for consideration in the Senate and believes firmly there must not be mandates or hardwired preferences for particular technology solutions in the security arena. She believes government's role should be to set security targets, but let industry figure out how best to achieve those goals, technologically.

Senator Warner is a respected leader on issues of technology and innovation more generally, because he spent the bulk of his business career in the field, and as an elected official he has focused on putting in place the conditions for innovation to flower. He is thinking carefully about how best to foster the growth of cloud computing, because it holds the potential to trigger a new burst of IT-driven growth."

In the final analysis, at your conference's conclusion, what two or three overall takeaways emerged that a.) IT vendors should take to heart, and b.) might be of interest to CTOs and CIOs in the private sector?

I think the biggest takeaway is that the federal government - the world's biggest purchaser of information technologies - is intently focused on cloud computing. The Obama administration's top technologists are driving a comprehensive review of every agency's IT needs, looking for opportunities to squeeze waste from the budget and boost performance by adopting cloud solutions.

In the same vein, they are working collaboratively with industry on technology standards for the cloud. These are welcome developments that bode well for government and industry alike. Another takeaway is that cybersecurity legislation is very much up in the air. Congress, the administration and industry all agree that it is important, but there is not yet consensus on some of the important particulars, such as how to set tough security targets while avoiding specific technology mandates. And even if a consensus were to emerge on all of those outstanding issues, mid-term politics could upturn the legislative calendar.

More Stories By Roger Strukhoff

Roger Strukhoff (@IoT2040) is Executive Director of the Tau Institute for Global ICT Research, with offices in Illinois and Manila. He is Conference Chair of @CloudExpo & @ThingsExpo, and Editor of SYS-CON Media's CloudComputing BigData & IoT Journals. He holds a BA from Knox College & conducted MBA studies at CSU-East Bay.