Can the U.S. Government Help Cloud Computing Reach a Tipping Point?

vivekkundraIt used to be that large corporations were the biggest boosters of new and cool technologies; more recently the consumer has been driving technology trends. But with the timing of an economic recovery still uncertain and VC dollars hard to come by, it may be the Feds’ turn to set the stage — and technologies that fall under the “cloud computing” moniker are likely to benefit. The federal government is open to the idea of using commercial cloud computing solutions, according to Vivek Kundra, the country’s chief information officer.

In an interview earlier this month, Kundra told me that one of his initiatives has involved pushing for “the adoption of cloud computing and consumer technologies within the public sector.”¬†While our conversation was wide-ranging, in the end we ended up focusing primarily on his belief that cloud computing can help the government be smarter and more efficient. For example, when I asked him what he planned to do about tgovernment-owned, energy-guzzling data centers, Kundra said, “What we have to ask is even a deeper question, which is does the U.S. government need to own all these data centers or is there a new computing model¬†that we could leverage?” By way of context, as of January 2008, the U.S. government was using 1.2 billion kilowatts a year to run 600,000 servers.

Kundra thinks there are lot of technologies available in the consumer marketplace that it can leverage. “As I’ve looked at the processes and investments that we’re making across the government, a lot of the investments that we’re making make no sense,” he said. To illustrate his point, he shared an anecdote about the TSA wanting to set up a blog and how its approach would have cost the agency (and the taxpayers) about $600,000. Thankfully wiser minds prevailed. Saving tax dollars underpins his approach to all IT. When I asked him whether the Feds would opt for commercial services such as the ones offered by Amazon and soon Microsoft, or if they would they build their own clouds, he said, “It’s going to be both because on the one hand we can leverage platforms that are available right now in the market for information that’s not classified or sensitive in nature.”

The government has already laid out its plans for some of its pilot projects and from my conversation with Kundra, it was clear that he’s not averse to working with commercial cloud service providers. The General Services Administration also recently released a Request for Information (RFI) for Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) offerings.

Kundra and his team are working on launching a “digital storefront for cloud computing solutions” that would offer for federal and other government buyers an experience that “is the same or similar to the experience that you and I have in our personal lives when we go to online stores like amazon or eBay or any of the other online vendors.”

This move to the cloud is going to be good news for Amazon, RackSpace and Microsoft, all of which I think are going to be competing with with traditional suppliers of information technology to the government. Others say that Terremark, HP, Google, Cisco and various systems integrators could be among the big winners. (GigaOM Pro, our $79-a-year subscription-only research service, has started following these developments closely.) For the U.S. government, cloud computing could be an easy way to deal with urgent and important issues, such as upgrading the federal and state technology infrastructure without costly upgrades.

If Kundra is successful in his efforts, then the sheer buying power of the government is going help cloud computing reach a tipping point.