Microsoft's advice to the Obama administration

Susie Adams discusses how Obama can bolster cloud computing and the new president's lofty tech goals

Now that the Obama administration has officially taken over, it's faced with technology problems all too common in today's enterprise. Chief among those, perhaps, is the goal of advancing the government's own IT infrastructure not only to catch up to and keep pace with current technology trends but also to plot a future in which U.S. residents can tap citizen services and in which Internet access becomes truly ubiquitous -- all of which have been cited by the Obama team as goals.

Susie Adams, the CTO of Microsoft's federal arm, spoke with InfoWorld Editor at Large Tom Sullivan about technology challenges the Obama administration faces, how it can give cloud computing a boost, and what enterprise CTOs and CIOs can learn from government IT practices.

[ What should be President Obama's tech strategy? InfoWorld's experts and others offer their recommendations. ]

Q: What are your first impressions of Obama and his technology intentions -- in general but also within the stimulus package specifically?

A: He's obviously very focused on broadband to the masses, which I think is necessary for cloud computing to actually take off in the consumer space, in the large enterprise space, as well as in state and local governments. It's very similar in concept to the telephone of years ago if you think about how the government got involved to provide telephone service and electricity to rural areas. He's taken a fresh look at that, which I think is good for the IT industry as a whole and the general public.

The administration is also talking about how to modernize the federal government. I've been supporting the federal government for Microsoft for over 10 years now. You can walk into agencies today and find lots of legacy remnants in their IT organizations for a variety of different reasons -- budgetary constraints on some ends, fear of the unknown on other ends, people who've been in the business 20 to 25 years just basically allowing the government to run as it has been running. I think we're starting to see that become a problem with some agencies having to spend more money than they should on their IT infrastructure and on their human capital to actually run these systems for basic core missions, not even to provide enhanced citizen services.

When I look at Obama's top-line message, it's "Hey, we really want to provide these enhanced services, we want to get into the 21st century and take advantage of Web 2.0 technologies." And they can't really do that unless their infrastructures get updated.

Obama has lofty goals for government. I think it's a very good thing, and good things will come out of it. We're starting to see trends already. If you make IT accountable for its costs, CIOs understand that's where the cloud can come in. You can start to take advantage of the economies of scale, and they're starting to do things like build their own private cloud, such as through server consolidation into three or four datacenters, and then they provide services internally.

Q: So, bearing that need to update infrastructure in mind, where will the government's IT budget go in, say, the next four years?

A: Especially right now with all the talk around the stimulus package, it's going to be very well defined where that money goes. On the whole: broadband infrastructure and making sure net neutrality is not compromised in any way.

Q: IT folks -- pundits, visionaries, and otherwise -- are calling on Obama to advance a variety of technologies, everything from a national computing cloud to a smart fabric. What would you advise our new president to focus on?

A: One of the biggest challenges facing the federal government is it doesn't really understand the current state of its IT departments. One of the things that I'd think would be on top of my mind for many of these federal agencies is to understand what they have today and what their challenges are, and then to plot a road map moving forward. Every agency is different, so it's not a one-size-shoe-fits-all. What we're finding as we work with these agencies is that some are more in a basic mode and some are a little bit worse.

Q: What one technology could the federal government adopt right now to make it more efficient?

A: I don't think it's just one technology. I don't necessarily think that across the board it's a technology problem. In some instances it is, but it really depends on the agency, what its mission is, and where it is in its IT evolution.

Q: Now, what is Microsoft's opportunity in this?

A: What we believe is our next evolution is to move to support three types of computing devices: cell phone or mobile PC, obviously the desktop, and then the cloud. That's why we introduced Azure, our commodity-based services, and things like Live Mesh.

Q: That sounds pretty similar to many of the corporate opportunities Microsoft is pursuing.

A: Right, but I would add that with government comes a number of different challenges from a security perspective. One of the biggest things government agencies are worried about is risk management, such as through encryption standards very specific to the federal government. Altogether, there are about 172 security controls out there.

Q: So what can enterprise CIOs and CTOs learn from the federal government's security practices, such as those 172 controls?

A: There are several ISO standards that encompass many of those controls, with some nuances. Obviously, from an authentication perspective, right now the civilian side of the government house requires an HSPD-12 smart card that forces you to authenticate any time you log in to any desktop or server. The commercial space is starting to catch up in terms of authentication, but then also from an ISO standards perspective, there are some vertical industries that are further down the road than others.

I think you'd want to start enterprises to conform to more of these ISO standards. The one that comes to mind is the newest one, ISO 27001.

Q: What did you think upon learning that Obama's administration tapped Sun's Scott McNeely to compile a report on open source for the government?

A: First of all, Microsoft's stance on open source is not "we hate it." Typically, people think that Microsoft and open source are oil and water. That's not the case. As for McNeely's comments, it's an interesting concept, the document, and we're very interested in reading it when it comes out.

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