US CIO Kundra: government IT should be more like Animoto

At this week's Economist innovation conference, US CIO Vivek Kundra expressed admiration at how Animoto, a video-building site, was able to quickly scale to 4,000 servers to meet a spike in demand. Even though it spends billions on IT, US government systems are driven to their knees by unexpected spikes in traffic.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

For the US government, it's full speed ahead for cloud computing. US federal CIO Vivek Kundra, speaking at The Economist’s Intelligent Infrastructure conference held at Pace University, reaffirmed the government's commitment to streamline and cut IT spending by turning more to the cloud.

US CIO Vivek Kundra: feds should act more like startup IT companies

US CIO Vivek Kundra: Why can't feds be more like startup IT companies?  (Credit: Daniel Terdiman/CNET)

Kundra says new developments in the technology sector are inspiring like-minded government initiatives. "I just spent some time in California talking with innovative startup companies and venture capitalists, and all are moving toward zero asset footprints," Kundra says. "Their capital requirements are very low."

There are important lessons for an organization that spends $80 billion for IT annually, he continues. "The government grew from 430 data centers to 2,094 over the last 10 years.  There's a lot of waste, a lot of duplication."

For example, he says, the Internal Revenue Service essentially needed to build out a massive infrastructure to handle processing requirements for one day out of the year -- tax day. "The rest of the year, those systems are 35% underutilized," he relates. In another example, the systems handling federal government's 2009 "Cash for Clunkers" program were overwhelmed when demand spiked toward the program's deadline. "We anticipated demand on the infrastructure of the agency handling Cash for Clunkers would multiply three times -- instead, demand multiplied twenty times, and the system started crashing."  As a result, consumers were left waiting at car dealerships because their vouchers could not be processed.

In contrast, Kundra points out, a site called Animoto, which enables users to build MTV-like videos, handily managed its own huge spike in demand because it was able to dynamically provision server power from the cloud. "They went from 40 to 4,000 servers in a few days, without losing a single user," he says.

There is some progress, however. "We now have 4,000 systems that are not owned by the government," Kundra says. "The government wants to move away from active ownership to provisioning to the cloud. Already, he says, there are examples of savings. The General Services Administration, for example, moved its email to Google Apps, and saved $20 million.  The United States Department of Agriculture, "with 120,000 employees, moved to the Azure platform, and is seeing $25 million in savings."

Kundra also continues to work on opening up federal government data. The data.gov site, for example, "started out with 47 data sets when we launched in May 2009. We now have 300,000 data sets online." Such information includes aircraft schedules from the Federal Aviation Administration and Medicare/Medicaid information. "We've just seen an app which couples the FAA data with airline data to show if flights are arriving on time," he relates. "We want to encourage people to work with the raw data to make discoveries."

"The American people are becoming the co-creators of the next generation of innovations," Kundra says. The success stories in the economy, he says, are companies that create platforms, leaving it up to users to fill in the content. "It's not YouTube creating content; it's you and I creating the content," he points out. "Same with Facebook and Twitter."

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