The Federal Government has revealed plans to allow larger departments to become cloud providers in their own right, with smaller agencies shifting between government-run resource pools with "minimum difficulty".
Guidelines [pdf] issued this week by the Government's central procurement office AGIMO sought to standardise approaches between agencies toward resource pooling under 'community' or 'government clouds'.
The concept, long championed by larger departments as a means of scaling up to meet government requirements or crises, allows multiple departments to pool data centre capacity under a single external cloud provider, or scale resources using the existing capacity of another agency when required.
Under the proposed guidelines from AGIMO, each community cloud would be appointed a lead agency, with smaller agencies effectively becoming cloud customers to larger ones.
The 17-page document sought to outline the roles and responsibilities of G-Cloud participants, an agreed funding model and process for dispute resolution.
In each community model, the lead agency would establish a governance committee and framework to manage operation of the cloud while establishing contracts to ensure that the cloud service provider takes a "principles-based" approach to cloud service delivery.
Significantly, the guidelines anticipate the possibility of the cloud provider being within government.
Non-lead agencies would be able to participate in more than one community cloud and may move from one community cloud cluster to another with "minimum difficulty".
AGIMO's first assistant secretary of policy and planning, Glenn Archer, said the Government hoped to develop a common approach toward community clouds "ahead of agencies just moving ahead".
The guidelines suggest that each community cloud governance structure be overseen by a whole-of-government "cloud information community" to allow free-flow of information, as well as the Secretaries' ICT Governance Board within the Department of Finance.
According to an AGIMO survey of departments last year, government agencies were planning at least four community-style clouds in the coming year, falling behind similar plans for private, public or hybrid models of cloud provision.
The guide argues for open standards as a pre-requisite for interoperability.
"While cloud computing is not a new technology, existing standards need to be amended and new standards implemented where necessary," the guidelines note.
Escaping cloud pitfalls
The concept has been particularly championed by agencies such as the Department of Human Services. Its general manager of ICT strategy and architecture, Yusuf Mansuri, said community clouds were vital to breaking down barriers between government agencies.
"The joint services that are provided to citizens that make a single end-to-end transaction may have components from various different agencies [that] might sit in various agency data centres in a distributed fashion," he said, pointing to challenges of agency ownership of those resources and data as well as maintenance of those services.
"These challenges requires us to think about a cloud solution - in this instance a government cloud solution.
"To provide a seamless and compelling end-to-end service, we will need to change our business model to move from isolated, siloed technology solutions to a whole-of-government cloud-based solution."
The department's moves to consolidate the resources of three previously disparate agencies - Medicare, Child Support and Centrelink - had also seen IT staff take on the infrastructure responsibilities of the Department of Veterans' Affairs.
Previous chief information officer John Wadeson had argued that the concept could expand to much larger agencies such as the Australian Tax Office to scale up resources during regular or infrequent spikes in capacity requirements.
The use of existing, internal government resources would also allow participating agencies to escape the perceived pitfalls of cloud adoption, which Archer said included international bandwidth requirements, relative market immaturity and availability - or lack thereof - of cloud-based services.
It would also allow agencies to determine more accurate cost savings as opposed to traditional infrastructure, avoiding the much-touted results that Archer said were not usually realised in the real world.
"Frankly some of the figures that have been bandied around in terms of potential savings through cloud are somewhat fanciful," he said.
"They might make good marketing material or spin but the numbers, when you apply them to real systems, don't quite pan out often."