Tiny cloud services firm Autonomic Resources now stands shoulder to shoulder with tech giants IBM and Lockheed Martin among a select few companies deemed qualified to bid on U.S. Department of Interior cloud services work that could total up to $1 billion.

The contract comes as part of a broader federal push for greater efficiency in government systems. The Interior Department work might not total $1 billion, it won’t come all at once and Autonomic is not guaranteed to get any of it. Over the next 10 years, the department will issue task orders that vendors can bid on.

But John Keese, founder and CEO of Autonomic, said the contract is important because it guarantees that when the Interior Department wants cloud work done in the next 10 years, Autonomic will be one of just 10 companies in the running for those projects.

“We compete fairly well against companies that outcapitalize us by billions,” Keese said.

Keese is guarded about details of Autonomic, though he says the company is known better inside Washington, D.C.’s beltway than it is around Raleigh’s beltline. Besides its Cary headquarters, Autonomic also has data centers in Atlanta and Ashburn, Va., just outside the beltway.

Autonomic is privately held and bootstrapped with no outside investors. Keese won’t disclose revenue or even the number of employees, saying only that the company is classified as a small business under federal definitions. Companies in “computer related services” are small businesses if they fall under $25.5 million in revenue, according to those definitions. Keese said his desire to keep most Autonomic details under wraps is for competitive reasons as well as because of its government work.

Security Is Tight

Most Autonomic employees have some level of government security clearance. Besides the Interior Department contract, the company has also applied for a contract with the Department of Defense calling for a vendor to handle nonclassified information. The company will also apply for a contract with the Federal Aviation Administration, though Keese said Autonomic will seek that work by supporting a larger partner. Depending on the work, an Autonomic competitor for one bid could be a partner for another bid.

While multiple cloud service vendors serve the enterprise sector, Autonomic focuses only on the federal government. Some companies that build cloud platforms for commercial clients don’t meet federal security requirements. But Autonomic’s open source technology was developed with the U.S. government in mind. When federal security standards were released last year, Autonomic set to work to develop a cloud platform geared to those standards. When Autonomic met those security requirements last December, it became the first cloud company in the country to do so. But cloud technology is a relatively recent development for the company.

Keese founded Autonomic in 2001 as an IT integration company. Autonomic’s employees worked on the sites of the company’s clients, such as air force bases and civilian agencies. About two years ago, Keese decided to transition away from that work in recognition of a shift toward cloud-based technology. The change has kept the company in R&D mode with little revenue over the last two years. But the strategy shift also means that Autonomic’s workforce is now concentrated in Cary rather than spread throughout the country, something Keese prefers.

Commercial Opportunities

Even though Autonomic focuses on government contracts, commercial work remains a possibility. Utilities, telecommunications providers, banks and hospitals also need secure clouds. Keese said the opportunity could for emerge for Autonomic if Congress passes cybersecurity legislation for such industries with “critical assets.”

Keese may also pursue state government work in 2014, though he adds that states are not an easy market to crack. Many entrenched vendors serve state government and they’ll fight to keep running their on-site technologies, resisting the push for putting information in the cloud. But Keese said Autonomic made the transition to providing cloud services because he saw how it can improve efficiencies and save money. He’s banking on CIOs to recognize that, too.

“We feel good about that, but I don’t have a crystal ball,” Keese said.