Amazon: apparently close enough for government work

Amazon: apparently close enough for government work

Summary: 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.


Amazon is extending its AWS services for secure government access. This has a number of implications, both positive and negative.

See also: Amazon intros AWS GovCloud for U.S. government agencies, contractors

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.

See also: Why killing is wrong-headed and stupid

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.

See also: Senate committee stifles White House cloud computing caper

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.

See also: Lightning strikes Amazon's European cloud

See also: Is the cloud still safe? How to survive a cloud computing disaster.

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.

See also: AWS cloud accidentally deletes customer data

See also: 7 important survival tips Amazon's orphaned 0.07 percent can teach us

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.

See also: Why Amazon is winning online retail and should fold on this silly sales tax fight

Topics: Government US, Amazon, Government


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Can't have it both ways.

    Dave, you wrote<br>"Those who lost data were those who didnt put in place solid disaster recovery plans."<br><br>It's my impression that with 'the cloud' the 'cloud' manages data recovery.<br><br>Whats the point of the 'cloud', except for collaboration, if the user still has to manage and maintain their own data on their own machines?<br>

    Far as turning over Government IT to private vendors, the University (which will remain unnamed) turned their IT to a vendor. The vendor and their system is a running joke. During the transfer Wifes access went away because the new system couldn't handle hardened passwords. ? That seems to be a pretty basic requirement to me.
    • RE: Amazon: apparently close enough for government work

      @rmhesche That's the exact mistake many people are making. You ask a good question, but you're essentially putting all your eggs in one basket. Sure, the idea is you want to be able to rely on a cloud vendor to do it all for you, thereby reducing your cost, effort, infrastructure, etc.

      But the reality is that counting on one company isn't really the best way to go. Take it from someone with a lot of experience: a whole lot can go wrong. Your vendor could go out of business, they could make a drastic architectural change, they could have some sort of disaster, they could have made some severe design error, they could decide your sort of business isn't important to them, or they could simply become jerks.

      Just look at my previous article, the one with the Adobe interview. Apple video pros have been relying on Final Cut Pro for years, and suddenly Apple pulled the rug out from under them.

      I always advocate having your own backup plan, because if it all goes to crap, you want to be able to do something, not just point a finger and cry. See some tips in:

      Good question, rough answer.
      David Gewirtz
    • RE: Amazon: apparently close enough for government work

      Jeez, you ether don't have a clue or are terrbly faetious! You think ONE backup in ONE location is suffcent? "Cloud" or no, not a single securty expert recommends onle ONE storage place. You should do some research.

      "Those who lost data were those who didnt put in place solid disaster recovery plans."

      Yeah, they stored ALL their data in ONE place! And you do know that the only thng new about a "cloud" is calling it a "cloud", rght? Wth the "cloud" you have no dea who currently holds your data or where your data is. And if you dd find out, it probably wouldn't be the same tomorrow. You're a perfect person for cloud hype and being hooked by the wrong folk.
  • First (Modern) Rule of Government: One Size Fits All

    The move by the Federal government to put things into the cloud, if done, will be more expensive by forcing all work to be done there - regardless if it really IS more efficient or not.
    The Federal Government has been wanting to standardize everything so that one size fits all (except the tax code) for the past 60 years+ and thinnk that work done by the State Department is the SAME as what is done by NOAA so they would write the single universal contract the same. And of course in the Federal Government UNLESS it is written into a contract - it will not and CANNOT be done.
    And of course all the telecommunication costs will go WAY up since now every person in the Federal Government (the 2.5 million Federal and the 4.6 MILLION CONTRACTORS, contractors are NOT counted as employees - they are expense items and never are counted in official Federal Government employment counts) would HAVE to have full outside access in order to do their work.
    And now if one agency wants to share data with another there is now a WHOLE new level of complexity that has to be soved each and every datastream - that you cannot see at all.
  • RE: Amazon: apparently close enough for government work

    While I agree that the cloud is not the second coming of Christ, I think your article fails to explicitly point out that huge segments of government data lack backup and are local. In my experience, the first target of the random budget cut is the entire backup system.
  • RE: Amazon: apparently close enough for government work

    i had a friend whose husband worked in the INS division and his job was to get all the people applying for citzenship into the govt computer data base - he was a computer person - he said the system was old and did not work and they had developed a new one that still didnt work so at that time back in the 1990 - had gotten some engineers from IBM to help with the govt data base - the govt had already spent 30 million on a program that didnt work
  • RE: Amazon: apparently close enough for government work

    In your first sentence you say:

    "Amazon is extending it?s AWS services for secure government access. This has a number of implications, both positive and negative."

    I work in a second-grade classroom. We teach second graders the difference between "its" and "it's." They get it. I wonder why you're making that mistake. Didn't pay attention?
    • RE: Amazon: apparently close enough for government work

      @rlcantwell_z I went to engineering school. It's vs. its is a side effect. On the other hand, I know Ohm's law like the back of my hand, assuming it's touching the other hand, and there's limited resistance. Heh!<br><br>You ever notice how second graders have a lot less they have to worry about and pay attention to than us adults? Man, what I wouldn't give for an afternoon nap.
      David Gewirtz
      • RE: Amazon: apparently close enough for government work

        @David Gewirtz
        Sorry, if that's a sde effect like you say, then you shouldn't be writing artcles for the public!! Its It's, there their, coulad have could of et al are ALL signs of laziness and ignorance in wrting style. Something a responder might say, but not an author of supposed news articles for the masses.
        I'm afraid I'll long remember your attitude toward good but simple grammer/spelling/meanings. I have NEVER seen an author make such a claim as you just have.
      • RE: Amazon: apparently close enough for government work

        @tom: If you're going to be pedantic then you should probably learn how to spell "grammar." Those punctuation and spelling mistakes that you cite bug me as much as the next person, but I've learned to put a sock in it when I'm reading content written by engineers who were hired for reasons other than their mastery of Strunk's Elements of Style.
    • You are not our new Jeopardy champion

      Robert Hahn
  • RE: Amazon: apparently close enough for government work

    That's great. Your email response system corrected your mistake in the first sentence. It looks like I don't know what I'm talking about.

    Read your first sentence.
  • RE: Amazon: apparently close enough for government work

    US federation will only entrust everything to cloud technology, until when it has some considerable projects under its wings and it is able to secure its leaking and transferring.