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I concluded all wasn't well with the federal government's cloud computing initiative when I ran into Chris Kemp while he was still CTO for IT of NASA. Kemp is the brains behind NASA Nebula, the prototype cloud for how the federal government was going to consolidate data centers and reduce IT costs.
Kemp appeared on a CIO panel at the CTO Forum in Half Moon Bay, Calif., and I asked him afterward whether Nebula, built at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., had gained any additional federal users. It was originally constructed to support NASA's operations and 3,000 widely scattered Web sites. "We host a lot of sites now on Nebula," and that work is still underway, Kemp related at the forum.
But the U.S. Office of Management and the Budget, which at one time was a trial user, is no longer active there. Late in 2009, when I was putting together the book, Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution, I heard from Kemp's office that the example of OMB was an incentive for additional agencies to figure out how they could use the cloud as well.
Kemp said all federal agencies are facing money problems, leaving little room for such experiments. "All federal agencies are facing budget cuts," and even though the cloud can save money in the long run, there's no room in tightened budgets for experiments, he said. I could detect his sense of discouragement in the remarks at the Feb. 10 event.
He also noted that it was getting hard to retain the best people in government IT. "They have new skill sets in virtualization and the new data center architecture. These people are in demand. 'Which job should I take -- Goldman Sachs or the Department of Agriculture?' It's a real challenge," he said.
At another point in the evening, when a questioner challenged the CIOs on the security of the cloud, Kemp pointed out that NASA's email is a Microsoft cloud service. He said: "We do not have the money to bring the latest Exchange infrastructure in-house and constantly update it. That amounts to 15 products to install, maintain and operate. As for security, I would say Microsoft data centers are harder to get into than ours."
By March 14, he had announced his resignation and determination to launch a new company "in a garage in Palo Alto." I think he will remain a leader in cloud computing from whatever vantage point he attempts to address it, and I look forward to following his efforts as he moves on to new things.
The migration of federal employees out of government is an old tension between the public and private sectors. At the start of the recession, there were plenty of enterprise IT managers who would have been happy to have a secure, ongoing government job rather than face a layoff. Coming out of the recession, the talent that's matured over the last two years inside government is ripe for the picking by industry.
Vivek Kundra, federal CIO, set out with ambitious goals in March of 2009 to re-architect the government's $76 billion in IT spending, halt the building of more government data centers, and bring the total number down by tapping the potential of the cloud.
In September 2009, he even went to Kemp's home ground, the Ames Center, to announce the government's apps.gov and other cloud initiatives. Getting agencies to select their software through apps.gov and consolidating some of those 1,200 federal data centers are still presumably the goals, with or without Chris Kemp.
But with Kemp's departure, one gets a sense of how difficult some of those goals really are and how much more difficult they have become in a time of growing deficits and budget cuts.
Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek.