Microsoft rolls out cloud for U.S. federal users

Microsoft Corp. announced on February 24 a suite of hosted cloud services that will be delivered from a facility dedicated to U.S. federal government users. 

Microsoft made the announcement at its Redmond, Washington, headquarters during its annual U.S. Public Sector CIO Summit. 

The services available in Business Productivity Online Suite Federal include Exchange, SharePoint, Office Live Meeting and Office Communications, and are hosted from special facilities in an effort to meet the particular needs of federal agencies. 

“It’s a separate, dedicated infrastructure in secure facilities,” said Rob Markezich, corporate vice president of online services at Microsoft. 

Physical access to the site will be controlled with biometric systems, and the only people who will be able to access the facility will be U.S. citizens, he said. “We’ve heard quite often from customers in the U.S. that to meet certain regulations that was a requirement,” he said. 

Those workers will also be required to undergo “rigorous” background checks including fingerprinting, he said. 

Other users including state agencies can use the federal service, but its use costs more than Microsoft’s standard BPOS service, which complies with many of the rigorous standards that most state agencies require, he said. 

Judging from the questions from the audience at the event, federal agencies may be interested in the concept but worry about a couple of potential issues including connectivity and security. “The more that’s in the cloud, the more bandwidth you need,” one conference attendee said during a question-and-answer period, complaining about connections from commercial Internet providers. “What’s the strategy for helping us get to the cloud reliably?”

Most customers that would use the federal service are likely to use dedicated network connections to Microsoft’s data centers, Markezich said. 

But dedicated lines come with additional costs that often-strapped government agencies likely don’t have. Other attendees asked if government programs like E-rate, which helps connect schools and libraries to the Internet, or Internet 2, a consortium of universities that works with the government to build networks, might help fund such dedicated connections. Microsoft said it has begun investigating whether that might be a possibility. 

The company will also have to satisfy government agency liability concerns, particularly around security violations. Without describing the details, Markezich said that Microsoft specifies the terms of its liability for data in its contract. “The principle we use is it’s your data, we don’t look to make money on it other than the service fees you pay us,” he said. The contract describes how Microsoft protects data and what happens if it becomes unavailable or compromised, he said. 

Microsoft also announced all of the government certifications that its standard BPOS service now complies with, including the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, International Organization for Standardization 27001, Federal Information Processing Standard and Trusted Internet Connections. 

The federal service supports all of those plus the rigorous International Traffic in Arms Regulations. Customers can buy service contracts now, with migration to the hosted suite expected to occur over the next several months, Markezich said.