WASHINGTON--The dice were hot, and Will Carroll was playing his cards just right. After leading his team to a solid second-place finish in a fast-paced, complex cloud computing "war game," Carroll seemed like a true management whiz.
The only hitch was, once the 90-minute exercise was over, the term "cloud computing" still left Carroll a bit mystified about what it really meant.
With a tabletop design resembling a fusion of craps and Monopoly, the management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton last week lured government workers into playing a game designed to introduce them to the concept of cloud computing. The firm also managed to rope in a few non-government types visiting the FOSE 2009 conference, such as Carroll, a graphic designer for the American College of Cardiology.
With a clear assertive, competitive streak, Carroll found himself at the center of a huddle of federal employees, barking out orders. He directed his teammates from the Commerce Department, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the IRS on whether to use cloud computing or traditional IT infrastructure to earn points in the game, which assigned tasks like protecting intellectual property or facilitating a peanut butter recall.
The game was played like this: consult your team, make your decision, pick a card indicating whether it was the right or wrong one, then collect your earnings.
"The game gave me an opportunity to meet people I wouldn't normally," Carroll said. "But, so what exactly does 'cloud computing' mean?"
Cloud computing doesn't exactly have a single, simple definition--it's being pitched and implemented various ways by tech companies including Google, Amazon.com, Sun Microsystems, Cisco Systems, and Salesforce.com. In its broadest sense, cloud computing refers to having software applications hosted by a third party, rather than in-house, and accessed via the Internet. That can cut costs for users, but it also means ceding some measure of control over the systems.
Carroll's confusion is common in Washington, where a largely bureaucratic workforce is notoriously slow to adopt new technologies. The new federal CIO, Vivek Kundra, hopes to change that, and has emphasized the efficiencies that cloud computing could create for government IT needs.
"You don't need to hire consultants to build out all this infrastructure," he told reporters earlier this month. "You just leverage what's on the cloud itself. Yet in the federal government, we don't have a single platform that allows us to do that."
The "war game" Booz Allen Hamilton hosted, in conjunction with companies like Google and Amazon, aimed to clarify its clients' confusion over cloud computing. Yet as Carroll proved, there was still plenty of uncertainty after the game.
Moreover, the game appeared to underscore some potentially significant challenges to government adoption of cloud computing. Just as Carroll found himself on a team with employees from a diverse group of federal agencies, different government departments may have to adjust to sharing space on the cloud, even if their missions vary greatly.
The point of cloud computing, said Amazon Senior Manager C.J. Moses, is "having the ability to access resources over a common infrastructure."
Yet until government agencies better define what they need from IT providers, said Booz Allen Hamilton Vice President Michael Farber, every department will want its own cloud.
"I don't think the cloud has any hope of offering any promise if we don't architect appropriately," Farber said. "Unless you think strategically about how the government works and wants to work, instead of having 150 data centers, we'll have 150 different clouds."
Each day of the FOSE conference, Booz Allen Hamilton held three rounds of the game, each with a different government theme: defense, intelligence, and civil and healthcare. The teams were handed sets of chips, some that represented money and others that represented staff. Each team had 90 minutes to go through various "tasks"--such as delivering retirement and disability services--which they accomplished by using money and resources to acquire certain IT capabilities.
The teams had the option of using traditional IT platforms, commercial cloud computing services, or a hybrid cloud--a cloud developed for a specific agency. Each carried different risks and rewards.
"Everyone thinks the game is going to be all rosy-posy about the cloud," said Greg Dupier, a Booz Allen Hamilton senior associate who was the master of ceremonies for the games. "There's a lot of hype about cloud computing, so we like to take a balanced approach and highlight the benefits and risks."
He explained that while certain government capabilities would make good use of the cloud, other functions like command and control applications and steady-state applications probably don't make sense to relocate entirely to the virtual spaces of the Internet.
Still, he and others in the IT industry say the perfect storm of shrinking budgets, shifting funding, and a new emphasis on technology in Washington will help boost the use of cloud computing in government.
"The federal government, there's no question, has unique requirements," David Mihalchik, business development manager for Google's federal enterprise team, said at the event. "But the vast majority of government customers can benefit from elements of the commercial cloud that meet their requirements."
Yet with so many IT solutions already in place--the government already spends more than $70 billion a year in IT--trying to transfer processes to the cloud would be like "trying to build a plane while flying," said Booz Allen Hamilton Vice President Drew Cohen.
"The reality is the government is a big institution with lots of agencies," Cohen said. "It's not a one-size-fits-all solution."
As the game progressed, the federal employees became more comfortable with its collaborative aspects--yet some were skeptical that people would be as cooperative or take the same risks in real life.
Shalini Jerath, who manages financial and procurement systems for the FAA, was on Carroll's team, but she spent large parts of the game standing silently back, observing the board and evaluating the risks.
While she does not currently use cloud computing in her work, Jerath said there has been some interest in adopting it at the FAA. She said cloud capabilities like analytics and document management could be useful for her. Still, taking a risk on a new way to manage data in real life would mean more than points lost or gained.
"The government is not necessarily a risk taker," she said. "Winning is not necessarily the end game."