Cloud industry needs to standardize, says Fed CIO

U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services' chief information officer wants way to compare cloud providers

WASHINGTON - Frank Baitman, the CIO of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), was at the Amazon Web Services conference here praising the company's services. His talk was on the verge of becoming a long infomercial, when he stepped back and changed direction.

Baitman has reason to speak well of Amazon. As the big government system integrators slept, Amazon rushed in with its cloud model and began selling its services to federal agencies. HHS and Amazon worked together in a real sense.

The agency helped Amazon get an all-important security certification best known by its acronym, FedRAMP, while Amazon moved its health data to the cloud. It was the first large cloud vendor to get this security certification.

"[Amazon] gives us the scalability that we need for health data," said Baitman.

But then he said that while it would "make things simpler and nicer" to work with Amazon, since they did the groundwork to get Amazon federal authorizations, "we also believe that there are different reasons to go with different vendors."

Baitman said that HHS will be working with other vendors as it has with Amazon.

"We recognize different solutions are needed for different problems," said Baitman. "Ultimately we would love to have a competitive environment that brings best value to the taxpayer and keeps vendors innovating."

To accomplish this, HHS plans to implement a cloud broker model, an intermediary process that can help government entities identify the best cloud approach for a particular workload. That means being able to compare different price points, terms of service and service-level agreements.

To make comparisons possible, Baitman said the vendors will have to "standardize in those areas that we evaluate cloud on."

The Amazon conference had about 2,500 registered to attend, and judging from the size of the crowd it certainly appeared to have that many at the Washington Convention Center. It was a leap in attendance. In 2012, attendance at Amazon's government conference was about 900; in 2011, 300 attended; and in 2010, just 50, Teresa Carlson, vice president of worldwide public sector at Amazon, said in an interview.

Amazon has about 200 federal government users, running a variety of workloads, including Web site hosting, communication and collaboration tools, SharePoint, along with workloads related to the Mars mission and, increasingly, big data analytics, said Carlson. Amazon is also getting intelligence agency workloads, and fighting to get a CIA cloud contract.

Carlson said that based on federal security requirements, theoretically as many as 80% of the government workloads could run in an Amazon cloud environment.

For government users, Amazon runs what it calls a GovCloud Region, which includes a cluster of data centers forming an "availability zone." The only private sector business that can be part of the GovCloud region are those that directly support the government workloads.

Carlson credits the Obama administration's first CIO, Vivek Kundra, who was appointed in 2009, with the federal shift to the cloud.

The government market "is an important market," said Carlson. When Kundra came out with its "cloud-first strategy, we felt like that was an opportunity to work with this customer," she said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is

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