Correction to This Article
The article misstated the title of Aileen Black, vice president of public sector for the company VMware.

Tech Firms Seek to Get Agencies on Board With Cloud Computing

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Consumers save their e-mail and documents on Google's data centers, put their photos on Flickr and store their social lives on Facebook. Now a host of companies including Amazon and Microsoft wants government agencies to similarly house data on their servers as a way to cut costs and boost efficiency.

But federal officials say it's one thing to file away e-mailed jokes from friends, and another to store government data on public servers that could be vulnerable to security breaches.

The push toward "cloud computing," so named because data and software is housed in remote data centers rather than on-site servers, is the latest consumer technology to migrate to the ranks of government. Companies such as Amazon and Salesforce, which do not typically sell services to the government, want a piece of the business.

Google opened a Reston office last year to sell applications such as Google Docs to federal employees. Silicon Valley-based Salesforce, which has focused on selling to corporations, established a team dedicated to government contracting. Microsoft spent $2.3 billion in 2007 to build data centers for cloud computing, and IBM, Sun Microsystems and HP want to provide the government cloud.

"We're all putting our lives on the Internet," said Zach Nelson, chief executive of online application provider NetSuite, which has shifted its focus to federal sales. "If it works for business, why not for government?"

Instead of storing information on computers, an agency would store e-mail and other data on servers maintained by companies such as Amazon or IBM. Employees would access information through an Internet browser, and in many cases from outside the office, just like they would access a Hotmail account.

Already, the Defense Department's technology arm has set up a cloud to let the military rent storage space or use remote software programs. But skeptics say information is not protected on public servers. Some worry that data may be impossible to remove after it has been socked away in commercial data centers. Unlike destroying hard drives to erase sensitive data, traces could remain on outside servers for years.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest group, two weeks ago asked the Federal Trade Commission to bar Google from offering its online tools to consumers until it takes necessary steps to safeguard consumer data. The complaint comes after reports that Google inadvertently shared access to users' documents stored online.

Deniece Peterson, principal analyst for market research firm Input, said storing personal information such as health records or Social Security numbers in the "cloud" could spark concern for consumers.

Many consumers, she said, think personal information should be housed on private government networks, rather than a larger one shared by a number of parties.

Moving information "to the cloud" would mean that government agencies would have to trust third parties to provide security support, store and organize the information and make sure only authorized employees can access it.

"The government may be outsourcing functions to contractors now, but this takes it to a whole new level," said Jimmy Lin, assistant professor of information studies at the University of Maryland, which has received funding from Google and IBM to research cloud computing.

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