It’s been more than five years since the Obama administration unveiled its Federal Cloud Computing Strategy, a cloud-first initiative that urged federal agencies to increase their cloud adoption to cut wasteful spending on legacy systems and benefit from the efficiencies of the cloud. But take up has been slow. In February 2014, three years after the initiative was announced, a survey of federal executives by Accenture found that agencies struggled to implement cloud strategies that would result in cost savings and budget reductions, primarily due to a lack of staff and a lengthy procurement process.

Government Cloud Adoption on the Rise

Today, cloud adoption by U.S. government agencies is rising fast, with Amazon seeing growth of 221 percent year-on-year for its Amazon Web Services (AWS) GovCloud since it launched in late 2011, according to Fortune. Similarly, Microsoft has seen high levels of growth, with 5.2 million users of Microsoft Cloud for Government. Interest is particularly high for capabilities that government agencies are lacking in-house, such as cloud computing for big data analytics, deep learning and natural language processing capabilities to examine data for patterns and anomalies.

One benefit government has seen since moving to cloud is a reduction in the number of federally operated data centers — from 10,584 when the cloud-first strategy was announced to just under 7,500, according to a report by GAO released in March 2016. The report estimates that an additional 2,078 will be closed in the next four years, upping the total number of closures to 5,203. Data center closures have been highest at the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Interior and Treasury.

Increased Savings

In addition to savings from data center closures, agencies have reported savings amounting to $2.8 billion in operating costs from 2011 to 2015, as well as savings from the avoidance of capital expenditures. According to GAO, the Departments of Commerce, Defense, Treasury and Homeland Security have accounted for 86 percent of savings. GAO also reports that 21 agencies claim to be planning an additional $5.4 billion in savings from the end of 2015 to end of 2019, bringing the total amount to $8.2 billion.

Cybersecurity and Hiring Challenges Among the Drivers

According to a survey by the Professional Services Council, CIOs and CISOs at federal agencies say cybersecurity is the biggest challenge they face, and therefore a top priority, exacerbated by aging legacy systems and infrastructure that needs modernizing and updating. They’re also struggling with stringent hiring rules that make it difficult to attract top talent and pay salaries that are competitive with the private sector, where compensation is generally higher. Skills in the greatest demand include cybersecurity, agile development and digital services skills.

Any cloud implementation will help with these issues, since outdated systems can be replaced with systems provided on demand — without the need to make capital expenditures. Agencies won’t have to maintain outdated systems and software, and will be able to better achieve their cybersecurity goals that require technology systems to be modernized. They’ll also be able to take advantage of fast changing, innovative technology developments that will drive performance improvements and enable them to make sense of the increasing volumes of data they consume. Analyzing information through a cloud implementation will be key in sorting through massive data sets and will help identify security threats and vulnerabilities.

Cloud adoption has been slow within the U.S. government, particularly when compared to the private sector, but it’s finally on the rise. Once held up by fears around security and data loss, organizations in all sectors —even government — now realize that they can improve security and big data analytics capabilities through cloud computing.

Learn about more ways that cloud computing combined with mobility can increase government productivity and efficiency.