Over the past few years, there’s been a consensus that federal use of cloud computing is on the rise. Government agencies are taking a few pages from the playbooks of private companies, and upgrading to third-party services that can help them do more with IT “economies of scale” – by offering versatile, on-demand tech functionality, cloud computing vendors have revolutionized the way IT is delivered around the world, and eliminated some of the inefficiencies and bottlenecks that plagued IT administrators before the cloud came along.

But there’s a story to U.S. government cloud adoption – it didn’t happen overnight. Administrators had to deal with a number of challenges, such as a generally hidebound culture of administration and bureaucracy that doesn’t often allow for quick change.

How Big a Piece of the Pie?

First of all, it’s important to track federal spending on the cloud to see how that fits into the big picture. These efforts can also show us more about what the government is investing in. For example, a spate of reports based on IDG projections show federal spending in 2014, including around $1.7 billion for private cloud setups, compared to $118.3 million for public cloud. Experts expect these numbers to roughly double for 2015. What this shows is that government agencies are investing more money in setups where a cloud provider creates a single-tenant, isolated system, instead of “playing in the public pool” as many savings-minded CEOs may do.

But all of this cloud spending, while an awful lot of money, is a drop in the bucket compared to total U.S. government spending on IT, which Brookings Institute has estimated at over $81 billion. Even with all of the costs associated with day-to-day IT admin, you might expect cloud costs to be a little more, and maybe, as cloud services continue to evolve, they will be by 2020.

FEDRamp: Cloud Vetting for Agencies

Another piece of the story is the emergence of the FEDRamp program, which dates back to around 2011, was created to help do away with redundant and duplicate processes for figuring out security compliance and other issues in cloud procurement. This kind of “re-use” of research and protocol keeps costs lower for agencies. As stated on FEDRamp’s website, the mission of the program involves providing “a uniform approach to risk-based management … enhancing transparency between government and Cloud Service Providers … improving the trustworthiness, reliability, consistency, and quality of the Federal security authorization process.”

“FedRAMP provides a valuable baseline that saves time, money, and effort for government agencies that are being told to deploy their services in the cloud,” says Frank Yue, Director of Application Delivery Solutions for Radware. Yue also cites projects like the US Government Cloud Computing Technology Roadmap designed by NIST that will help push government offices toward cloud benefits.

Rob Stein, VP, U.S. Public Sector at NetApp, adds that although FedRAMP has helped to “pave the way” for cloud adoption by federal agencies, it has also led many of those offices to rely on multiple cloud services, which raises the question of cross-platform migration. This, said Stein, calls for a kind of approach where a “data fabric” helps manage data across multiple environments.

“Adopting a ‘data fabric,’ which allows for data management elements in different clouds to be well integrated, cohesive and coherent, like a seamlessly woven fabric, allows agencies to control, integrate, move and consistently manage data in the hybrid cloud environment,” Stein says.

Cloud Issues

In moving to the cloud, federal government offices have all of those same challenges that face businesses: the burden of making sure that cloud services are secure, compliant with industry standards, and cost-effective. They also need to minimize “disruption” to business as usual, which is hard when you’re migrating data and functionality from one kind of system to another.

An article in FCW magazine this June points to some of the reasons why the growth of federal cloud spending may be muted: sources suggest that as government office administrators have already brought “the low hanging fruit” to the cloud, in terms of easily maintaining things like websites off-site, they may not have found ways to merge cloud platforms with legacy data entry, data retrieval and storage systems. Doing this would allow these offices to make more out of the stated benefits of the cloud, such as elasticity, the ability to bring on-demand services to business processes, or agility, the ability to change on a dime.

In order to reap these benefits, the next cloud wave is going to rely on more sophisticated models, where vendors can show a customer audience how to run data execution tasks through web-delivered services. That means a bigger pool of IT talent on both sides of the table, and that’s another thing that seems in short supply according to industry reports. Government offices and their vendors will need a new generation of tech-savvy and agile workers to implement new solutions.