Amazon is extending its AWS services for secure government access. This has a number of implications, both positive and negative.
There is no doubt that government IT could use something of a reboot. While I've met a lot of federal government IT people, and they're all highly experienced and capable public servants, they've also always been trapped in the bowels of the procurement process. I've also documented, rather famously, how government IT can follow some of the worst practices, revolving around the political hiring strategy known as "I know a guy."
Everything gov ITers install has had to go through either a formal procurement process (lowest bidder isn't always the best bidder), or has been scrounged or handed-me-down from some other installation.
Certainly, some government IT installations are the best money can buy, but others are just the most other people's money (i.e., us taxpayers) can spend. Government IT installations suffer from another disease endemic to all government agencies: inter-agency rivalries, politics, communications snafus, and random budget cuts.
This, of course, leads us to the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative, which is the plan behind the claimed closing of 800 government data centers.
Our own data center expert, David Chernicoff, maintains the government's count of 800 isn't strictly true, in that they're counting any facility that houses a bunch of computers (i.e., server rooms) as full data centers. He makes a good point, and it goes to the issue of IT veracity in federal agencies.
One way to resolve the problem is to go to the cloud, something the White House has been promoting for some time now.
This is actually quite a good idea, especially if the government uses cloud experts like Amazon and Google. There are some enormous benefits that can be harvested by taking advantage of all the research and development into scaling, security, and reliability that both Amazon and Google have done over the years.
Unlike one agency, which has to reinvent all the same techniques that another agency developed (but won't share), any new technology Amazon or Google develops for one customer instantly becomes part of the IP offering made available for government computing.
So, on one hand, the AWS GovCloud initiative is a great idea. On the other hand, maybe not so much.
The problem is, we've seen substantial, huge, measurable cloud failures, even as recently as this last week or so.
The problem is that some of these outages aren't just times when the service is down. There's also been actual permanent, non-recoverable data loss, and that could be a huge problem for government data.
So here's the challenge. Amazon is clearly a quality vendor for cloud-based services, even though they've had their share of bad news. The Amazon customers who survived the data loss incidents were customers with good planning and redundant systems. Those who lost data were those who didn't put in place solid disaster recovery plans.
For our government to succeed in the cloud, we can't allow agencies to put all their trust into cloud vendors. Instead, we must be sure that the agencies practice proper oversight, management, and planning to ensure that the public's interest is properly served.
Therein lies the problem. The United States Government hasn't often been able to demonstrate a whole lot of skill with those oversight, management, and planning things.
Hmmm...maybe we should just turn over all government IT operations to Jeff Bezos and Larry Page, and tell them to just bill us for whatever it takes. Heck, if the states would just stop picking on Jeff for this sales tax thing, he'd probably do all this government IT stuff for free.