Cloud computing services can be purchased from most providers at any time online with a credit card, yet federal agencies have struggled to figure out the best method for procuring the cloud in the government.

“The procurement office, if they’re not savvy on what cloud is, it could go in a lot of directions,” said Barry West, chief information officer for the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), at the Federal Cloud Computing Summit Wednesday in Washington.

iStock Cloud ComputingThe challenges come down to the complexity of massive agencies with multiple business units and missions. One agency may need three or four different cloud providers for services ranging from software to storage. System integrators and cloud brokers also assist the purchase and implementation process. On top of that, all of those parties must meet federal security standards, which vary according on the sensitivity level of the project. The result is a complicated acquisition scenario, whose details often depend on the specific use case.

“It’s a completely different model than just going out and buying equipment traditionally,” West said.

Strategies for simplifying cloud computing are relatively new in the federal government. For example, the General Services Administration’s (GSA) official program for providing security approvals (FedRAMP) is only two years old. West said GSA is helping the process but “it’s going to take some time.”

“It’s getting acquisition folks up to speed,” he said.

While the government’s complexity, security needs and acquisition methods have separated it from the private sector, some suggest it can be thought of as one big company when it comes to assessing mission needs and procurement. The government should be thought of as a large firm with each agency as an individual business unit, said Bill McNally, a procurement administrator for NASA.

“What should we be doing as a corporation and what should the different profit centers being doing themselves because of the uniqueness of their mission?,” he said at the summit.