Cloud computing still coming into focus

Cloud computing, a term used by many Washington information-technology companies these days, may seem simple enough to those of us who use Yahoo e-mail accounts, store pictures on Flickr and upload videos to YouTube.

The basic premise: store your information, photos, documents — pretty much anything — on some company’s remote servers — or in the “cloud” — instead of directly on your computer’s hard drive. That company stores and maintains it for you, and you can retrieve it from any computer as long as you have an Internet connection.

It definitely holds promise. Federal technologists, including Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra in the White House, hope it will save money for agencies and be a more efficient way for employees to share information and work remotely. And if employees’ information is no longer stored on physical hard drives, they won’t lose data even if they lose their laptops.

The White House recently launched, a site that lets chief information officers all over the government shop for pre-approved software programs that make use of “the cloud.” Officials can download software from the site, upload their organization’s information, and they’re off and running.

The selection of applications on the site is still relatively limited as the government vets new ones.

But what is still hazy is how that information is stored and kept safe from security and privacy breaches, how to ensure information can be deleted from remote servers without leaving traces of sensitive information and who is going to provide the services. Firms like Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Salesforce have been clamoring to develop cloud-computing products that are robust enough for government use. And firms that have traditionally provided IT services to the government — IBM, Booz Allen Hamilton and CSC, for example — are trying to defend their turf by building their own expertise in the area.

And the government hasn’t even figured out how to define “cloud computing.” The National Institute of Standards and Technology, which advises agencies on technology use, last week released its 15th version of a working definition. It’s two pages long and begins with a caveat: “Cloud computing is still an evolving paradigm. Its definitions, use cases, underlying technologies, issues, risks and benefits will be refined in a spirited debate by the public and private sectors.”

If you’ve been reading the Hillicon Valley blog, you’re aware that the private sector has already stumbled on this front. Last week, T-Mobile informed some of its customers that a Microsoft subsidiary called Danger lost e-mails, photos and contact lists after its servers crashed. If similar episodes continue to occur, the government will probably be less likely to entrust classified, sensitive information to third-party servers until security and reliability improvements are made.

California Congress members cheer on young homebuilders

In the Solar Decathlon going on right now on the National Mall, the team from Silicon Valley, Team California, is in the lead.
Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) met with the team Wednesday morning at the Capitol to encourage its members in the remainder of the competition, which ends Friday morning.

“We understand, more or less, how important your project is,” he told the team, made up of students from Santa Clara University and California College of the Arts. “A lot of times I wish I had one of those homes. For a single guy living alone, that’s all I need for entertaining.”

The team’s project — Refract House — won first place in the architecture, hot water and communications categories. The house, which uses green materials and energy-saving technologies, will next be judged on its net power production, although the team from Germany is expected to have a leg up in that round. The U.S. Department of Energy puts on the annual competition.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who attended Santa Clara University’s law school, stepped in to say a few words to the 20 or so students on the team.

“We know we cannot continue our dependence on foreign oil,” she said. “Climate change is real and what you’re doing is part of the solution.”

Ken Reidy, a staffer for Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.), is also an alumnus of Santa Clara University and swung by the short event to show his support. Carnahan co-chairs the High Performance Buildings Caucus and has taken an interest in sustainable, eco-friendly homes.