NIEM and the Cloud

Priority Report: Data Center Solutions

By Cara Garretson

The National Information Exchange Model is making inroads among government agencies to facilitate data sharing. But this specification will face a whole new set of challenges in the cloud.   

NIEM, the National Information Exchange Model, could become the basis upon which successful data sharing is achieved across federal, state, and local government agencies. This common data standard designed to facilitate critical information sharing in emergency situations, as well as promote data flow during day-to-day operations, promises to give agencies an unprecedented means for sharing data. However, there are still many unknowns regarding how well the data-sharing model will mesh with emerging technologies, specifically cloud computing.

“If you have data in cloud A that you want to move or copy to cloud B, how do you say ‘cloud B’? Most clouds don’t have the concept that there is another cloud.”

Vint Cerf, Chief Internet Evangelist, Google

NIEM, the result of a partnership between the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security in 2005, is designed to enable “information sharing, focusing on information exchanged among organizations as part of their current or intended business practices,” according to the NIEM Web site. “The NIEM exchange development methodology results in a common semantic understanding among participating organizations and data formatted in a semantically consistent manner.”

The benefits of using NIEM to build strong information-sharing capabilities across agencies will aid first responders and other real-time decision makers – such as officials enforcing security at borders, airports, and seaports; local law enforcement; judicial processors; and correctional officers, the Web site says. NIEM will enable these officials to base their decisions on information that is complete, accurate, and up to date.

Sharing Data in the Cloud
At a NIEM training event in Baltimore last September, Internet pioneer Vint Cerf – who is now the Chief Internet Evangelist at Google – gave a keynote speech that posed a number of questions regarding NIEM and cloud computing. While Cerf offered words of support for the work that federal agencies are doing to implement NIEM, he also warned that cloud computing models may present some specific obstacles to sharing data.

“At the core of what NIEM is trying to do [is] trying to help people take information and make it sharable and therefore more usable,” said Cerf. “It is in the cloud computing environments that the NIEM systems are ultimately going to have to work.”

While cloud computing in some respects is well suited for sharing data – particularly when it comes to making sure data is up to date, since users collaborating on a project in the cloud can be assured that the information sitting in the cloud is the most current – questions arise regarding how multiple cloud infrastructures will work together.

Missing Vocabulary
“If you have data in cloud A that you want to move or copy to cloud B, how do you say ‘cloud B’? Most clouds don’t have the concept that there is another cloud … they have this missing vocabulary problem,” he told the audience. Cerf offered an example of an organization wanting to move data from one cloud to another, or that began a computation in one cloud, ran out of resources, and wants to complete the computation in another cloud.

“What should a digital object be; what should a cloud expect when one arrives? I think NIEM has a great deal to say about those concepts, but the details still have to be worked out in many respects.” Cerf told the audience.  “As hard as you have worked on the NIEM ideas for data structures and meta data, about how to interpret things, and the semantics and syntax and everything else … as we start embedding that into the cloud environment we expand some of the challenges and demands being made on the treatment of that data.”