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GSA and the Cloud: What it Means for Other Agencies, Data Security

Photo: Axel Rouvin

The announcement last week that the General Services Administration would become the first federal agency to enter the brave new world of cloud computing has spawned speculation on a growing number of topics: What does GSA’s move to the cloud mean for other agencies, for data security and for GSA down the road?

First, the specifics: On Thursday, GSA inked a $6.7 million deal with Google and Unisys Corporation to migrate the 17,000 employees and contractors with GSA email accounts to Google Apps for the Government, a cloud-computing platform.

GSA Chief Information Officer Casey Coleman touted the agency’s cloud opportunities: cost reduction of 50 percent from current legacy systems, saving the agency about $15 million and nearly real-time updating of systems and software.

But are there any security risks to moving to the cloud? One observer, noting that cloud platforms can host data servers on foreign soil, raised the specter of data being stored on third-party servers based outside the United States.

Larry Allen, president of the consulting firm, Allen Federal Business Partners, told Nextgov this would muddle the legal and security concerns for GSA.

But Coleman told Nextgov that “Information security is about much more than where your server sits,” because, regardless of location, all of the security controls in the contract are still monitored.

In addition, Google Apps for the Government is certified by the Federal Information Security Management Act guidelines to meet the feds’ security needs, Federal News Radio reports.

In fact, Google was the first cloud solution to attain such a status, but as PC World notes, “FISMA certification does not include handling of classified information, so it is not a silver bullet for winning government contracts.”

Aside from the security concerns, why is GSA’s move getting so much attention?

Federal News Radio reports that many agencies are looking to GSA as an early adopter, especially as more agencies are expected to deploy similar platforms as part of a “cloud-first” strategy.

“There’ll be a lot of interest on the part of other agencies who are always looking for the leaders that are going out” and implementing a cloud platform, said Dave McClure, associate administrator of the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies at GSA.

“And, there’ll be a period of lessons learned and so forth,” he added, “which I think we’re happy to be in that position because we feel like we’ve made the right decision and the right choice in going into the cloud email space.”

Finally, GSA’s cloud takeoff likely doesn’t signal the end of online-based innovation for the agency.

“Email and collaboration are good test beds for cloud services,” ZDNet reports.

However, once this current transition is complete, “and employees are comfortable in the new environment, then other commodity services are sure to follow,” including many edge workloads, content management solutions and commodity business applications.

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