Much as we all like to complain about government inefficiency, hulking bureaucracies and outdated procedures, there are a few areas where government really does excel in setting the standard for the rest of the country.
In the area of public access to documents over the Internet for example, the Feds have done quite well. It’s no longer necessary to drive downtown to a government office, or make a phone call and wait a week for a clerk to mail a form to us—we can just download it over the Internet. Even state Departments of Motor Vehicles—well known and maligned for hour-long waits and grumpy employees—have gotten onto the bandwagon of technology, and in most states it’s now possible to renew your license plate online or at an automated machine in the office lobby. And once again, it may well be the government that sets the pace for embracing the cloud computing model.
It’s not surprising that the biggest cloud project in government comes from NASA, an agency that always tends to be out in front of the pack with new technology. A cloud computing pilot called Nebula, being developed at the NASA Ames Research Center, “integrates a set of opensource components into a seamless, self-service platform, providing high capacity computing, storage and network connectivity using a virtualized,scalable approach to achieve cost and energy efficiencies.” NASA says that Nebula provides for rapid development of applications that are both policy-compliant and secure, promotes collaboration, and encourages reuse of code.
Nebula is a wonderful example of cloud computing done right. It is open source, which means it is transparent and highly interoperable. It is a full, true cloud system that incorporates infrastructure, platform, and software; all three of the main components of cloud computing. Nebula is already in use for educational and public outreach uses, collaboration, and mission support. Amateur astronomers use it to upload high resolution photographs, and the LCROSS participation site, where amateur astronomers work with NASA scientists to get a better view of the moon, is built on the Nebula platform.
Two useful elements of Nebula elegantly illustrate the benefits of cloud computing. It automatically increases computing power and storage as the web application needs it. This is a central benefit of cloud computing in general—the user need not worry about compute power and storage, since that’s all automatically and transparently taken care of on the back end. When more storage space is needed, it’s allocated. If more compute power is needed, you get it transparently. Second, Nebula addresses the security worry. It was built to be secure, as well as compliant with government policies (of which there are many).
The Federal CIO Vivek Kundra, who was formerly the District of Columbia technology chief, has been a strong proponent of use of cloud computing in government as a way to gain efficiency and save taxpayer dollars. In Washington DC, he was able to eliminate a $4 million initiative to create an intranet for the DC government, and instead, shift the district government to Google Apps—accomplishing the same goal, and saving a huge amount of money. Kundra’s move to the cloud enabled DC to save money and improve efficiency. For example, now the district’s training information can be obtained through online videos on Google Apps; the same Google Apps is also used to add more transparency to government by making procurement data available to the public. Kundra claims that “The cloud will do for government what the Internet did in the ’90s. It’s a fundamental change to the way our government operates by moving to the cloud. Rather than owning the infrastructure, we can save millions.”1
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1 Gautham Nagesh. “Local technology czar could be headed to Obama
administration.” Nextgov, November 26, 2008.