10 innovators changing the game for Internet infrastructure

The Regulator: Steve VanRoekel, U.S. Chief Information Officer

by Katie Fehrenbacher

Steve VanRoekel, the second Chief Information Officer of the U.S. who was appointed by President Obama last summer, tells me his mission is to “maniacally focus on innovating with less,” when it comes to IT infrastructure in the U.S. Only a public official could make penny-pinching sound that patriotic and, well, awesome.

But VanRoekel has been able to work with a flat to trimmed IT budget and still help the U.S. government stay at the forefront of moving toward cloud computing, opening up public service and agency data platforms, and emphasizing data center energy efficiency. VanRoekel, who previously held two other positions for the Obama administration, says his former career in the private sector at Microsoft has helped him see the importance of margins and the bottom line in the IT industry.

During his first year as U.S. CIO, VanRoekel helped manage the effort to reduce the total number of government data centers. The Office of Management and Budget mandated that by 2015, the government must reduce its stable of roughly 2,094 data centers by  38 percent to 800 total. While that task might sound burdensome, it’s one of his more important and compelling goals, says VanRoekel.

The Federal CIO has also been helping usher in the government’s “cloud-first” initiative, launched in 2010, that directs government agencies to consider using cloud computing as the first option whether it’s for email systems or infrastructure as a service. And when it comes to cloud infrastructure he wants to make sure that security isn’t left out of the equation. This month the General Services Administration launched a unified authentification standard for government cloud computing called FedRAMP. Cloud computing operators will have to apply to get FedRAMP approval.

Reducing the energy consumption of data centers is a real priority for VanRoekel, too. Whether that’s just through consolidation of data centers, or through onsite data center efficiency measures, VanRoekel says “energy is playing a huge role,” both as a cost constraint, and as a factor for where companies should build data centers. Delivering more computing with a smaller footprint is the ultimate goal, says VanRoekel.

When it comes to government data, VanRoekel, working with President Obama, is outlining how government data can provide better services for citizens through an open platform and web APIs. The move might sound obvious to those of us that work in the Valley, but public agencies have always been slow to embrace what’s working on the web in the private sector.

VanRoekel points to how GPS data and weather data have created useful — if not necessary — applications for the public, and he wants all types of government data to be used to unleash new and useful services. The coming opportunities for this data is the thing that he really wants entrepreneurs and the Valley to know about. Over the next year VanRoekel’s office is looking to transform how the government works with developers, tech companies and innovators and Data.gov will be transformed into a data and API catalogue.

At the end of the day what VanRoekel is tasked with isn’t revolutionary — it doesn’t have the same type of disruptive factor as, say, a new type of chip or architecture for the IT sector. But it’s necessary and it needs calm, quiet leadership and down-to-earth decision making. VanRoekel seems to be making the smart decisions — albeit sometimes the boring ones — about how to do more with less, and deliver what is needed now for the future of the IT infrastructure industry.