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Cloud Computing at the Federal Aviation Administration: Data Hugging and Performance Anxiety

The FAA recently released its cloud computing strategy. This document explains where the FAA sees obstacles to cloud computing adoption and it provides a snapshot of the federal cloud computing market.
May 2012 was a big month for cloud computing at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In the space of a few weeks, the FAA released Version 1.0 of its FAA Cloud Computing Strategy and it awarded a $91 million contract to Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) to stand up an Enterprise Messaging System in a CSC-hosted cloud. The award to CSC is part of the FAA’s new cloud computing strategy, Phase One of which entails assessing and then selecting “low-risk, high-value cloud services that can deliver and demonstrate early value to the FAA.” Migrating email to a Cloud Service Provider (CSP) is a proven winner in this respect, as it has become one of the first major services to move to the cloud. The same holds true for the FAA’s other early foray into the cloud, the award of a contract to Akamai to provide on-demand web content. That the FAA’s early steps into the cloud are represented by low-risk services like email hosting and web content delivery illustrates the fundamentally conservative approach that the agency is taking toward cloud computing adoption. In this sense, the FAA is an excellent example of how federal agencies go about embracing a new technology paradigm like cloud computing and an informative illustration of trends currently dominating the federal cloud computing market.
Agency Concerns Slow Cloud Adoption
Two obstacles to rapid cloud adoption evident in the federal market as a whole stand out in the FAA’s cloud strategy document. The first is security in Public clouds. This is no surprise as the safety of data in Public clouds has been a central concern from the beginning. What is surprising in this context is that agencies like the FAA remain concerned about the security of Public cloud computing despite years of studies and published expert opinions showing that Public cloud solutions like those provided by  Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, are likely safer than many of the government systems on which the data currently resides. Still the security concern persists, suggesting that ingrained cultural bias against outsourced data hosting is the real culprit, not holes in Public cloud security.
In addition to “data hugging,” the second big concern for the FAA around cloud computing is performance. Issues like system latency and reliability are cited as big areas of worry for the FAA, especially in connection with the potential hosting of National Airspace System (NAS) components in the cloud. Much like the Army’s tactical networks and combat ISR systems, NAS components must transmit data in real-time and they must operate without fail 24x7x365. The FAA remains committed to exploring the use of cloud solutions for hosting NAS systems, but it will do so only after it has been proven to their satisfaction that hosting the NAS in the cloud does not impair reliability and performance. The need for ironclad assurance that systems in the cloud are reliable suggests it will take time for the FAA to adopt vendor hosted solutions extensively.  Moreover, this observation extends to other federal departments where systems must be on at all times and must deliver data in real-time.
Turning to an Internal Solution
IT leadership at the FAA understands the transformative nature of cloud computing. It is because of this understanding that the agency is moving toward the cloud paradigm. However, because of cultural resistance, risk aversion, and abiding doubts about the performance and reliability of outsourced cloud solutions, that same leadership is turning predominantly toward the more time consuming and expensive path of creating its own internal cloud environment before it invests in vendor provided solutions. The center of this FAA cloud environment appears to be its Herndon, Virginia data center, into which the FAA is planning to relocate already virtualized, lowest-risk applications. The FAA will then use this data center to “begin hosting a community cloud as a shared resource for government agencies … the Herndon facility will [also] offer a self-service interface in which customers can request their own infrastructure and provision it based on the need of the project.”
This approach illustrates the findings in FIA’s recent Federal Cloud Computing Services Outlook, 2012-2017 report. Agencies are often turning toward internal cloud solutions based on the use of their own virtualized data centers. The FAA specifically and DOT in general have a leg up on other agencies in this respect because for years the FAA/DOT has engineered many of its systems on a Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA). Now, with the advent of cloud computing, the FAA intends to develop an FAA Cloud Computing Architecture that will interface with its Enterprise Architecture (EA). The result will be “an IT environment that takes advantage of cloud computing to support, enable or leverage key Federal and FAA initiatives including data center consolidation, net-centric operations, shared services, SOA, innovation, and sustainability.”
The Result: A Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Market
For several months now FIA has been commenting how the federal cloud computing market shows signs of having a dual nature. On the one hand agencies are competing contracts for low-risk systems like email and web content delivery, while on the other they are utilizing in-house resources and contracts, like those for managing their data centers, to implement private clouds based on their own IT infrastructures. The cloud strategy document just released by FAA illustrates this trend clearly. The results of these bi-polar market trends are as follows. To begin with, it only appears as if cloud adoption across the federal government is slow. Few cloud contracts are competed in comparison to the data showing that cloud adoption is on the rise. The data shows the trend, however, illustrating that agencies are adopting cloud computing. They are simply doing it on their own terms. Those terms are highly risk-averse, informed by cultural tendencies toward “data hugging” and resulting in the creation of internal private clouds. To be sure, the FAA does state in its cloud strategy that as its systems come up for technology refresh, the agency will evaluate the possibility of outsourcing the system to a Cloud Service Provider. The question worth asking, however, is if the FAA possesses an internal, scalable, private cloud environment, what would it gain from hosting the system in a vendor provided cloud? Knowing the answer in advance could make the difference between profiting in the federal cloud computing market or being left out of it.

 

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