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Cloud Opportunity Missed?

The Cars.gov web site is the biggest 'clunker' in "Cash for Clunkers"

I am guessing that Vivek Kundra, the US Government's new CIO and a strong advocate of Cloud Computing, is sending Barak Obama and Ray LaHood, the US Transportation Secretary, an email saying "I told ya so".

Why? The "Cash for Clunkers" auto stimulus program's web site clunked due to the popularity of the program.

First of all, what is Cash for Clunkers? A US Government program created to stimulate the sales of newer automobiles which also enabled the removal of older, less efficient (lower MPG), higher polluting cars from US roadways. The program will end in less than 24 hours and will be feather in the President's cap. As many as 475K new vehicles were sold under this program. The results so far - the auto industry is pleased with higher sales and reduced inventories; the dealers are mostly pleased with increased sales albeit many are waiting for their government pay backs; the consumers are pleased because of a subsidy on the auto sale. The only people that are not pleased are the administrators of "Cash for Clunkers" and the dealers. Why? Too much demand which exposed inefficiencies.

It appears that the voucher system set up to handle dealer claims was crushed by unusual high demand.  Now "unusual high demand" to me is synonymous with cloud computing. My own definition of cloud computing speaks directly to that point.

"A new way to deploy or virtualize IT using the internet as a method to quickly borrow/use resources (compute, storage, infrastructure, applications) and either keep those resources for any given amount of time or give those resources back after use."

So what happened? The Associated Press (AP) wrote a story about the program and pointed to the government's own back end processes handling the claims from dealers.

"We were not anticipating the number of transactions would be anywhere near what it is at this point," said Daniel Smith, the NHTSA associate administrator overseeing the program in a recent information session with dealers

The government's computer system was also overwhelmed. Some dealers brought staff in after midnight to try to scan and send documents, only to have the online system crash. Transportation officials eventually improved the computer system to smooth the claims process.

The Government highlighted 3 key assumptions that created the problem.

The high popularity - the auto industry forecasted that the program wouldn't have a major effect on sales. Oops! The auto industry should know their business and consumers a bit better. But if that were true, they probably wouldn't be coming in and out of bankruptcy (apologies in advance to Ford and several others).

The dealer sales people - the sales people ‘pre-sold' the program to customers. Whenever the dealers were clued into the Cash for Clunkers program, the sales people found creative ways to take advantage before the actual start date. This caused the initial rush to the Cash for Clunkers web site and crashed the system.

The government entity that handled the claims - this group was rushed to put the entire program together. The AP suggested that Transportation Department officials were presented with just 30 days to get the program up and running. The time crunch probably meant less automation and more human "eyes" processing claims (as evidence, the government added 700 more human claims processors to the original 300 midway through the program).

For any project, the project leader has the typical resource dilemma - a balance of feature set, time, and cost. In this particular case, my guess is that cost was mostly fixed so the tradeoffs are time and feature set... Adding more time may allow you to improve the feature set but the start date was set - so the ultimate tradeoff is feature set. When you don't have additional time or resources, you end up cutting the feature set. My guess is that the front-end web site got the bulk of the attention while the back-end processing got little (the forecast was ‘x' and ‘x' could be covered by 300 claims processors).

Whatever computer systems were scoped for the project, the project team should have considered Cloud Computing as a component to gear up or throttle down the processing needs. That is a bit obvious now (think about the phrase "Monday morning or armchair quarterback") and I could never comprehend the internal hurdles to get this project done. Going forward, I assume that Cloud Computing will be considered.

Preparing and successfully implementing this project with a cloud component could have freed up capital to focus on the automation of claims processing. For example, greatly reducing the capital expense by not buying hundreds of servers and implementing cloud computing could have allowed the project managers to focus on the tougher portion of the program - automating the claims process and reducing the human intervention required to process and complete the claims. In other words, the Cloud implementation could help with the classic cost/time/feature set dilemma - shift the costs previously allocated for capital equipment (physical servers) and shift that cost to programming a better feature set. That is the power of Cloud Computing.

"The program is choking on its own success," said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who sent a letter Thursday to (Ray) LaHood (US Transportation Secretary) asking it to reform Cash for Clunkers. "It expanded exponentially without sufficient basic preparation."

While Richard Blumenthal's comment above is obvious and lacks a resolution, I imagine Ray LaHood forwarding Richard's email to Vivek Kundra with an email conversation like this:

To:  Vivek Kundra, Federal CIO

From: Ray LaHood, US Transportation Secretary

Subject: HELP - the Cash for Clunkers web processing is a clunker!

Vivek,

I am getting some heat from folks on Cash for Clunkers. I heard you are an expert in something called Cloud Computing. Someone told me that it might have helped us on the Cash for Clunkers web site. I am not sure what Cloud Computing is, but if it prevented us from being embarrassed, I am all for it.

Best regards,

Ray

To which Vivek replies,

Rich,

Sorry to hear about the trouble. I think what you and the Connecticut AG experienced will be likely be a typical IT fiasco based on ‘old school' thinking. We have outlined a way the government can be efficient (yes, oxymoron I know) via Cloud Computing. If you drink the cloud computing kool-aid with me, we will be able to have better options in the future.

Best regards,

Vivek

P.S. Just to let you know, Monday night is when Cash for Clunkers ends (8:00 EST). It will be the busiest time and the web site will probably crash again. Use your political influence to smooth things over. I have an RFQ Document that has an embedded strategy on how we will conquer projects with Cloud Computing in the future. Our Cloud Computing initiative will add a ton of credibility to future programs.

I wish I could see those see those emails!

More Stories By Rich Bruklis

A 20 year veteran of the storage industry, Rich has been a business leader in product marketing. He has seen the industry change from backup on 5.25" floppies to 10,000 cartridge tape libraries with every tape "standard" in between. Rich has supported 5.25" 30MB hard drives and launched disk arrays with hundreds of drives. Most recently, Rich has focused on business continuity and disaster recovery.

While the hardware industry continues to experience BBFC (Bigger, Better, Faster, Cheaper), there is a cloud on the horizon that is about to disrupt that trend. Cloud Computing will fundamentally change the IT world much like the network changed client-server computing.