The recent Cloud Smart initiative released by the Federal Chief Information Officer (CIO) highlights the government’s growing interest in multi-cloud infrastructure. Many federal agencies are looking to incorporate multi-cloud infrastructure, including the Department of Defense through its Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure acquisition (JEDI) contract. This policy initiative is focused on easing the transition from current data infrastructure systems to multi-cloud systems for federal agencies. The CIO believes multi-cloud infrastructures will drive savings at the federal level, improve data security, and provide mission-serving solutions faster. While there are a number of benefits associated with the adoption of cloud technology, the integration of multi-cloud infrastructure also comes with its own set of challenges.
First off, let us take a deeper look at what exactly multi-cloud infrastructure is. Cloud computing strategies treat data and computation infrastructure as a service from a provider. Each cloud contains computer system resources (i.e. data storage, file-sharing services etc.), that are managed and maintained by a cloud service provider. Once packaged in a cloud, these resources can be accessed by users over the internet on a multitude of network capable devices. These clouds can be public or private, with proper security applied to each specific cloud as needed. A multi-cloud system is when multiple clouds are connected to one entity, such as a federal agency. All of these clouds have separate purposes and information, but can be accessed across an entire agency, allowing for an extensive categorized information sharing network.
At first glance, it is easy to see the powerful applications of multi-cloud infrastructure. Multi-cloud systems can efficiently complete agencies tasks through customization, effectively allocating security efforts, increasing data sharing capabilities, and reducing overall IT costs. The main advantage of using multi-cloud infrastructure is the ability to customize the cloud environment to fit the unique needs of each department within an agency. When an agency subdivision needs highly specialized computer services for a specific purpose, they can choose a cloud service provider that best fits that particular need. At the same time, if another subdivision of an agency requires different computer services, they can find an alternative cloud service provider that is better tailored for that task while still employing services needed from the previous cloud. For example, if one cloud contains file sharing services, but a department in an agency needs data analytics software, they can hire a new service provider to create and manage a cloud for those data analysis tasks, while still using the old provider and cloud for file sharing services. This allows for a more efficient usage of computer resources, and eliminates redundancy in software purchases. It also increases the agility of an agency’s data systems, which is imperative for a highly innovative world.
Another benefit of this specialization is security prioritization. Information security can be customized to the security classification of the information stored in each cloud. In previous data systems, public data was being secured with the same resources as top secret information. Multi-cloud systems eliminates this by allowing agencies to focus security efforts on highly sensitive information stored in specific clouds. These measures keep data more secure within the agency, as well as externally.
Multi-cloud infrastructure also creates an extremely efficient data sharing network within an agency. Since information is compartmentalized into different clouds, users can go to different clouds to find the specific information needed, rather than connecting to one large data center that holds all of the agency’s information. This increases efficiency by spreading out computational tasks and would lead to faster data transfer. Also, uploading data to specific clouds will help unify information within an agency and keep data as current as possible.
Economically, multi-cloud can cost much less than conventional systems because of competition between providers. Also, agencies will not have to deal with vendor lock-in, and will be able to contract different vendors that best suit their needs. Agencies will be able to purchase a narrower set of services and avoid purchasing generic packages that would result in unutilized resources.
The main issue with multi-cloud systems is the level of complexity it creates in maintaining IT infrastructure. While vendors manage the services within each cloud, agencies will need to have highly qualified employees managing the overarching architecture of these clouds. The main architecture has to be set up in a manner that eliminates redundancies and efficiently places the right services in the right clouds. If done wrong, multi-cloud services could become extremely ineffective and costly. To be successful, there needs to be agency employees with a strong understanding of these multi-cloud systems, which currently are very difficult to find, especially in the public sector. Many organizations would have to contract out multi-cloud infrastructure management which would add additional costs, and add further intricacies in management. This can become even more cumbersome integrating security to this infrastructure if a clear plan is not mapped out beforehand.
Another issue with multi-cloud is its effectiveness in deployment environments. In environments where there is limited connection to the internet, accessing information and software over the internet will be extremely difficult. Agencies requiring effective information sharing in limited connection environments should look to hybrid cloud systems, combining legacy systems with multi-cloud systems. Doing this however increases infrastructure complexity and management, and increases security requirements for information in these environments.
Overall, with the current push for cloud integration, federal agencies should look into converting to a multi-cloud system on a case by case basis leveraging the costs and benefits. Agencies requiring extensive data processing that operate mostly within U.S. borders would be the best candidates for multi-cloud integration, such as the Department of Energy and the Department of Homeland Security. In fact, DHS has already announced the start of multi-cloud integration as of early 2019. The Department of Defense, which has also begun integration of the JEDI contract, should work closely with multiple IT vendors to understand how hybrid cloud systems may work better for their needs as compared to pure multi-cloud systems. Each individual agency should conduct extensive research, specifically analyzing their own workflows, before migrating their IT systems in accordance with the federal cloud initiative.