Why Cloud Computing Is Like Water

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Federal acquisition professionals feel they lack expertise in cloud computing services and they are having trouble structuring contracts to buy them, according to two recent polls of subscribers to ASI Government’s Virtual Acquisition Office—an online center of research, tools and on-call support.

Because cloud computing offers agencies opportunities to reduce costs, enhance efficiency and empower innovation, it’s important for program and procurement professionals to become better cloud consumers.

It helps to think about buying cloud computing as similar to purchasing water for a building.

Building managers pursue a contract with a local water company that provides water service to the area. In the cloud, agencies buy computing resources as a service. Buying as a service eliminates the need for the building to tap, purify, regulate and distribute its own water. The as-a-service approach to buying cloud computing reduces the need for agencies to own and maintain information technology hardware and software.

The as-a-service model spreads the operational and capital costs of water infrastructure across many users in the building and beyond, just as it distributes the expense of providing computing resources among many cloud customers. As-a-service purchasing enables water and computing to be consumed in real time, with customers paying “by the drink,” in other words only for what they use, in addition to any recurring fee for the service.

A building resident can turn on the tap and consume as much water as he likes whenever he wants. Similarly, the cloud provides on-demand, self-service access to information technology equipment and services.

Just as the water company can increase and decrease supply without prior notice or altering its infrastructure, so too can cloud providers supply varying amounts of configurable computing resources. Water providers meter consumption, allowing condo owners and building managers to measure usage. In the same way, cloud providers measure service to assign cost and enable users to regulate consumption.

Cloud computing, like water, almost always should be procured as a commercial service. Part 12 of the Federal Acquisition Regulation governs commercial services and cautions agencies against including “any additional terms or conditions in a solicitation or contract for commercial items in a manner that is inconsistent with customary commercial practice.”

Successfully acquiring cloud services requires suppressing the notion that your agency’s computing resources needs are truly unique and require a customized product or service. For the most part, water is water and computing is computing no matter who buys it, how and for what purpose.

To project the scope of cloud purchases, acquisition professionals and program managers should review the contractual history of the IT services targeted to move. Early adopters often have begun by relocating email, data storage and analytics services to the cloud. Using acquisition streamlining techniques, such as inviting cloud providers to provide feedback and expertise, helps agencies develop more effective cloud service requirements.

And if your agency anticipates broad and recurring need for computing resources, or isn’t confident in its ability to project how much it will require, an indefinite delivery contract is worth considering.

IDVs, as such contracts are known, are useful when the exact times and quantities of future deliveries are unknown at the time of award. They are well-suited to the dynamic and fluctuating nature of cloud computing and its as-a-service consumption. Not all IDVs are created equal, however, so you’ll need to understand their unique characteristics to choose the type best suited to your agency’s needs.

Choosing among cloud providers is easier today thanks to the General Services Administration’s Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, known as FedRAMP. The program vets and pre-approves providers against standards in accordance with the 2002 Federal Information Security Management Act and controls established by the National Institute for Science and Technology for safeguarding information stored, hosted or processed in a cloud environment.

Without standards and controls, every building would have to independently ensure the purity of its water and the safety of its provider, and each agency would have to vet and qualify each cloud vendor. FedRAMP prevents this time-consuming, duplicative and resource-intensive effort, enabling agencies to choose among cloud providers that already have been granted authority to operate.

Viewing the cloud through a watery lens helps drain some of the mystery from it. And using commercial practices, indefinite delivery contracts and FedRAMP lets the purchasing process flow like, well, water.   

Kimberly McCabe is chief executive officer of ASI Government, which provides support, research, education, news and online tools to federal acquisition professionals at more than 130 agencies.

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(Image via rvlsoft/Shutterstock.com)

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