Posted by: tonywilburn | August 18, 2011

Federal Cloud – Is it a Cloud or isn’t it?

Since I started working for a Federal Cloud provider, I’ve had to re-think the way I look at things.  I’ve been in the D.C. area for a couple of years now and have worked on several government agency IT projects, but the cloud has changed things.  First, everyone knows about the red tape.  Yes, there is a lot of that, and yes it does slow things down.  The other is the security concerns.  While everyone is worried about the security of the cloud, with the government those concerns are increased and rightly so.  This post came about as I was reviewing the material for the vSphere 5 VSP.  As part of the instructional material, there is a slide describing the three types of clouds.  Public, Private, and Hybrid.  Simple right.  Public is hosted by a third party, such as ourselves, Private is hosted by the system owner, Hybrid is, well, a hybrid of the two.  The next slide talked about the definition of a cloud, a cloud is a virtualized environment that has been developed to provide self service.

This is where things get muddy, or should I say cloudy?  The company that I work for provides a multi-tenant cloud for Federal use only.  So, from the start, it’s not truly public, since the public does not have access to it.  While different agencies may have virtual machines residing on the same cluster, non federal agencies will not.  Again, I think the reasons are valid and obvious.  Now let’s look at self-service.  By the definition given in the VSP training this has two requirements.  One is you can purchase the required virtual components (CPU, memory, storage) for a new virtual machine without interaction from other parties, the other is that you can increase those components on demand.  The training used a vending machine as a metaphor.  As you can imagine, this isn’t possible with the Federal Government.  There are strict procedures that must be adhered to when purchasing and procuring equipment or services.  This slows the process down, and is at times frustrating for us vendors, but it is your money they are spending and given the whole debt ceiling,  government spending debate. going slow is not a bad thing.  But for the government, purchasing cloud services is less like a vending machine and more like, well like standard government procurement.

Let’s take self service one step further.  Self service is not only purchase on demand, it’s also provision on demand.  This is possible in a Federal cloud, if you plan for it.  You can purchase a set of resources that you pay for at a reoccuring monthly rate.  You could then use these resources as you see fit.  So, if you purchase more memory than you need, more CPU than you need, more storage than you need, you could create and destroy virtual machines as often as you want.  Need to add memory to a VM?  As long as you have some lying around, go right ahead.  Or maybe you want to free-up unused memory on one VM and give it to another, be our guest.  Resource pools can be wonderful things.

So it’s not a public cloud, it’s not a private cloud, it’s not a hybrid cloud.  Above that, it’s not built for self service, at least not fom the purchasing aspect.  So by VMware’s definition, it isn’t even a cloud.  So what is it?  I’ve heard the term “Community Cloud” floated around.  That’s probably as good a description as any, if you think of government agencies as a community.  Of course, as with all communities, there are going to be sections of the community that don’t want to associate with others in the community.  In the case of the community cloud, this will be due to security reasons.  Systems rated low, medium and high will most likely need to be kept separate, and then of course there is Defense and Intelligence that like to stay off to themselves, and not associate with anyone else, but you have those people in your community don’t you?  If you can’t think of anyone, then it’s probably you 🙂

So is it a cloud?  If so what type?  Should VMware and the virtual community shift the way we think of clouds to accomadate federal requirements or is there a fourth type of cloud?  Surely the United States government isn’t the only government that has these concerns and strictures.  Feel free to weigh in.


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