Government involvement in cloud computing standards: a positive move

Kathy Grise, IEEE


Cloud computing has become quite the topic for discussion among just about anyone and everyone today. Google produces about 254,000,000 results on cloud computing. But do we really understand what cloud computing is all about?  Ask 10 people if they have heard about cloud computing. They will say yes. Ask them what is cloud computing, and they will give you 10 different perspectives.

Cloud computing is not just a new trend, but can be compared to what happened with the introduction of the Internet. Without common and established standards for the Internet, we would not have the compatibility and reliability today behind the various browsers, FTP clients and applications. The cloud is real and has significant implications to our day-to-day lives. It is big business worldwide, and every day, new jobs, educational offerings and conferences in cloud computing are created.

How is government involved? In the United States, the federal government has strived to help clearly understand, establish and document specifications and procedures for cloud computing interoperability and its framework. Some level of governance with regard to cloud computing is necessary in order to help find good answers to key questions, such as:

  • Are businesses able to switch their cloud applications from one cloud service provider to another?
  • What is necessary to ensure consumer protection and that corporations play with each other?
  • What must be done to help small and medium-sized corporations sustain their businesses within this huge and growing market?

Given the different perspectives around the term itself, one of the positive roles that the U.S. government has assumed is striving to define what cloud computing is. This was recognized by the government as demonstrated by the actions taken by the Federal Chief Information Officer (CIO).

The Federal CIO was charged with improving performance and lowering the cost of government operations by leveraging cloud computing. The Federal CIO asked the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to lead federal efforts on standards for data portability, cloud interoperability, and security. The resulting effort is the "Cloud Computing Synopsis and Recommendations" NIST Special Publication 800-146, authored by Lee Badger, Tim Grance, Robert Patt-Corner, and Jeff Voas:

Cloud computing allows computer users to conveniently rent access to fully featured applications, to software development and deployment environments, and to computing infrastructure assets such as network-accessible data storage and processing.

This document reprises the NIST-established definition of cloud computing, describes cloud computing benefits and open issues, presents an overview of major classes of cloud technology, and provides guidelines and recommendations on how organizations should consider the relative opportunities and risks of cloud computing. Cloud computing has been the subject of a great deal of commentary. Attempts to describe cloud computing in general terms, however, have been problematic because cloud computing is not a single kind of system, but instead spans a spectrum of underlying technologies, configuration possibilities, service models, and deployment models. This document describes cloud systems and discusses their strengths and weaknesses.

Depending on an organization's requirements, different technologies and configurations are appropriate. To understand which part of the spectrum of cloud systems is most appropriate for a given need, an organization should consider how clouds can be deployed (deployment models), what kinds of services can be provided to customers (service models), the economic opportunities and risks of using cloud services (economic considerations), the technical characteristics of cloud services such as performance and reliability (operational characteristics), typical terms of service (service level agreements), and the security opportunities and risks (security).

Through the involvement by the government, we now have a clear and concise definition of cloud computing, plus an outline for what areas and issues standards should be a focus. 

This leads us to another important role for government: collaborating with members of the for-profit corporations, academia and non-profit corporations to establish standards for interoperability and a framework behind cloud computing. With the right balance of just enough standards, we can foster an environment of openness, fairness, creativity and innovation for cloud applications.

This discussion has focused on the implications of only the U.S. government and its potential effects on cloud standards. Certainly, other governments will be a factor, too. (In particular, what role and its implications do India and China play in standards?)

What's clear is that government has an active role to play in helping to define what cloud computing is and to set the stage for standards development.

Kathy Grise, IEEE Future Directions Program Director, works directly with IEEE volunteers, IEEE staff, and consultants in support of new initiatives, and is the IEEE staff program manager for the IEEE Cloud Computing Initiative, and the IEEE Technology Navigator.