IBM initiative adds Big Blue to government cloud computing market

What will a government cloud computing look like coming from “Big Blue?” Today, IBM announced a community cloud for federal government customers and a municipal cloud for state and local government agencies. With the move, IBM joins a marketplace for providing government cloud computing services that has quickly grown to include Google, Amazon, Salesforce.com and Microsoft.

[Image Credit: Envis-Precisely.com]

“We’re building our federal cloud offering out of intellectual bricks and mortar developed over decades,” said Dave McQueeney, IBM’s CTO of US Federal, in an interview. The value proposition for government cloud computing that IBM offers, he said, is founded in its integrated offering, long history of government work and experience with handling some of the largest transactional websites in the world.

The technology giant whose early success was predicated upon a government contract (providing Social Security records keeping systems in the 1920s) will be relying on that history to secure business. As McQueeney pointed out, IBM has been handling hosting for federal agencies for years and, unlike any other of the cloud computing players, has already secured FISMA High certification for that work. IBM will have to secure FISMA certification for its cloud computing, which McQueeney said is underway. “Our understanding is that you have to follow the FedRAMP process,” he said, referring to the the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP initiative that’s aimed at making such authorization easier for cloud providers. “We have made requests for an audit,” he said.

As the drive for governments to move to the cloud gathers steam, IBM appears to have made a move to remain relevant as a technology provider. There’s still plenty of room in the marketplace, after all, and a federal CIO in Vivek Kundra that has been emphasizing the potential of government cloud computing since he joined the Office of Management and Budget. Adopting government cloud computing services are not, however, an easy transition for federal or state CIOs, given complex security, privacy and other compliance issues. That’s one reason that IBM is pitching an integrated model that allows government entities to consumer cloud services to the degree to which CIOs are comfortable.

Or, to put it another way, software quality and assurance testing is the gateway drug to the cloud. That’s because putting certain kinds of workloads and public data in the cloud doesn’t pose the same headaches as others. That’s why the White House moved Recovery.gov to Amazon’s cloud, which CIO Kundra estimated will save some $750,000 to the operational budget to run the government spending tracking website. “We don’t have data that’s sensitive in nature or vital to national security here,” said Kundra in May.

“Cloud isn’t so much a thing as a place you are on a journey,” said McQueeney. “To begin, it’s about making basic basic information provisioning as easy and as flexible as possible. Then you start adding virtualization of storage, processing, networks, auto provisioning or self service for users. Those things tend to be the nexus of what’s available by subscription in a SaaS [Software-as-a-Service] model.”

The path most enterprises and government agencies are following is to start with private clouds, said McQueeney. In a phrase that might gain some traction in government cloud computing, he noted that “there’s an appliance for that,” a “cloud in a box” from IBM that they’re calling CloudBurst. From that perspective, enterprises have long since moved to a private cloud where poorly utilized machines are virtualized, realizing huge efficiencies for data center administrators.

“We think most will government agencies will continue to start with private cloud,” said McQueeney, which means CIOs “won’t have to answer hard questions about data flowing out of the enterprise.”

Agencies that need on demand resources for spikes in computing demands also stand to benefit from government cloud computing services: just ask NASA, which has already begun sending certain processing needs to Amazon’s cloud. IBM is making a play for that business, though it’s unclear yet how well it will compete. The federal community cloud that IBM is offering includes multiple levels of the software stacks including Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS), depending upon agency interest. At the state and local level, IBM is making a play to offer SaaS to those customers based upon its experience in the space.

We know from dealing with municipal governments that processes are very similar between cities and states,” said McQueeney. “There’s probably a great leverage to be gained economically for them to do municipal tasks using SaaS that don’t differ from one another.” For those watching the development of such municipal software, the Civic Commons code-sharing initiative is also bidding to reduce government IT costs by avoiding redundancies between open source applications.

The interesting question, as McQueeney posed it, is what are government cloud computing clients are really going to find when they start using cloud services. “Is the provider ready? Do they have capacity? Is reliability really there?” he asked. Offering a premium services model seems to be where IBM is placing its bet, given its history of government contracts. Whether that value proposition makes dollars (and sense) in the context of the other players remains to be sense, along with the potential growth of Open Stack, the open source cloud computing offering from Rackspace and other players.

Regardless of loud computing will be one more tool that enables government to deliver e-services to citizens in a way that was simply not possible before. If you measure Gov 2.0 by how technology is used to arrive at better outcomes, the cloud is part of the conversation.

Whether state and city governments move to open source applications or cloud computing – like Los Angeles, Minnesota or now New York City – will be one of the most important government IT stories to watch in the next year. Today, IBM has added itself to that conversation.

UPDATE: CNET posted additional coverage of IBM’s government cloud initiative, including the video from IBM Labs below:

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.