March 1, 2021

Federal Push for ‘Cloud’ Technology Faces Skepticism

But even as Mr. Kundra returns to academia after a two-and-a-half-year run, his vision for a leaner and more Internet-centric future for government is being met with caution by at least a few of the technology chiefs at the federal agencies that now have to carry it out.

That is because Mr. Kundra’s vision hinges on “cloud computing,” in which an agency’s computer programs (like e-mail) and data (like e-mail messages) are stored by private contractors and delivered to government employees as services over the Internet.

Contractors like Amazon, Google and Lockheed Martin market their cloud services as a way for private companies and government agencies to avoid having to build and manage costly new data centers as they add computing capabilities.

The selling point, in addition to lower costs, is greater flexibility, because agencies can change the size of a project without having to add or subtract from their computing infrastructure.

“Just as the Internet has led to the creation of new business models unfathomable 20 years ago, cloud computing will disrupt and reshape entire industries in unforeseen ways,” Mr. Kundra wrote in an e-mail.

Such high praise for new Internet technologies may be common in Silicon Valley, but it is rare in the federal government, where concerns about security are paramount.

Attacks from abroad this spring and summer on government systems and contractors have heightened concerns over security in defense and intelligence systems. In July, the Pentagon said it had suffered its largest breach, in which hackers obtained 24,000 confidential files. Defense officials said they suspected a foreign government’s intelligence operation could have been behind the attack.

Surveys of chief information officers of federal agencies, conducted by various research companies, show an elevated degree of concern about security when asked about cloud computing. But the agencies must comply with Mr. Kundra’s “Cloud First” policy, which encourages the use of cloud services for new projects and requires them to move at least three existing projects to the cloud by next summer.

Some agencies, especially those that deal with less confidential information, have been quick to adopt the model. In the first six months of Mr. Kundra’s policy, the Agriculture Department has moved about 46,000 employee accounts and is in the process of adding 120,000. The cloud can help speed along technology projects, said Chris Smith, the agency’s information chief.

But other departments, especially defense and state, are proceeding more slowly. Teri Takai, the chief information officer for the Defense Department, said her agency’s use of cloud computing would be limited for the near future to keep confidential data within the military’s advanced security systems.

“With the increasing frequency and sophistication of cyberattacks on defense systems, we are concerned with any new approaches that can introduce new risks,” Ms. Takai wrote in an e-mail.

The Pentagon, with its global reach and hundreds of thousands of users, could benefit from the anytime-anywhere capabilities of cloud computing. Ms. Takai’s twist on Mr. Kundra’s vision is the concept of “Mission-Oriented Resilient Clouds,” a security-minded approach that the Pentagon is developing for use in military operations.

“When done with the proper considerations and planning, cloud computing will be a very effective and efficient tool,” Ms. Takai said.

The State Department is moving ahead only with low-risk projects, like a Web site for its Office of the Historian, which offers public information about the history of American diplomacy, the agency’s chief information officer, Susan Swart, said.

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