In late July, just days before the Data Center Optimization Initiative (DCOI) memo was issued to all heads of executive departments and agencies throughout the government, a panel of federal IT heavyweights discussed its implications at the Advanced Technology Academic Research Center (ATARC) Federal Cloud Computing Summit.

The conclusion? Cloud is more than just the new data center.

The DCOI, released by Federal Chief Information Officer Tony Scott, outlines new requirements for agencies to "develop and report on data center strategies to consolidate inefficient infrastructure, optimize existing facilities, improve security posture, achieve cost savings, and transition to more efficient infrastructure, such as cloud services and inter-agency shared services."

As its summary notes, despite its name, data center optimization is more of a step to cloud adoption than an end goal. (Note that agencies may not budget any funds toward new data centers or “significant” expansions without approval from the Office of Management and Budget, beginning 180 days from August 1, 2016.)

The consensus of the panel, which included Dominic Sale, the Deputy Associate Administrator of Information Integrity & Access, under the General Services Administration (GSA), Melonie Parker-Hill, the Division Chief of Enterprise Operations Center within the Department of State (DoS) and Chuck Gowans, the Director/Chief Architect of the National Information Technology Center (NITC), under the Department of Agriculture (USDA), is that the solution lies in transitioning to cloud and interagency shared services.

In other words, don’t rebuild stove-piped data centers in the cloud. Use the capability of the cloud to create true interagency integration, shared services, so that information can flow more freely and be accessed safely and securely, whenever and wherever needed.

Although the panel believes—and we agree—the government will likely always rely on its own physical data centers to some extent, the message is clear: Data centers are as much a part of the future of primary federal IT planning as punched card programming.

The initiative sets out with three primary objectives: to achieve cost reduction through efficiency gains; to achieve cost reduction through facility/infrastructure reduction; and to create new sustainability best practices. Once each agency has a secure, operational cloud system, a larger network with built-in compatibility will be implemented to create a cross-agency cloud ecosystem.

Before flipping the switch on the cross-agency ecosystem, various security options (e.g., compartmentalization) will need to be implemented, while penetration testing will ensure the system can successfully mitigate the threat of cyber attacks. Throughout the process, compliance checks will be required. Moving forward, agencies and developers alike will need to dedicate even more resources to application optimization and explore the latest technologies.

One of the largest issues, other than organization of this massive project, will be the associated costs. In order to pay for this initiative, government agencies must place great emphasis on small investments that could bring very large returns. Research and analysis will play a key role in determining the success of this initiative. Over time, the cloud will eventually pay for itself through monetary cost reduction, increased work efficiency and time savings.

From this panel discussion, there were three significant takeaways:

• Firstly, the government’s most important resource is people. It is of utmost importance that they start retraining and adapting employees to understand the cloud and how to use it, so that they are not rendered obsolete.

• Secondly, different agencies must know themselves and their options. They must stay current, follow their objectives and remain competitive.

• Lastly and most importantly, agencies should move to the cloud not to re-host, but to take advantage of new capabilities provided by a cloud system and possible future savings.

 

Increasing Mission Capability Through Cloud

At NJVC, when we discuss the impact of cloud on federal IT, we start with a discussion on how it can increase mission capability. Cost saving is an important reason to adopt cloud-based IT compared to traditional on-premises IT, but what our customers need most is whatever technology will help them best achieve their mission. Moreover, just because cloud computing will result in savings doesn’t mean it will immediately result in savings, as there are costs associated with creating and deploying cloud solutions.

In a second panel discussion, which included Bill Kirkendale, Chief Information Officer of Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA) and Jason Yasner, Operations Manager for the World Digital Library under the Library of Congress (LoC), the panelists shared stories of how cloud has helped federal agencies better achieve mission, each of which is an example of how other agencies can improve the quality of the services they offer.

These stories share four common themes on the benefits of cloud migration, listed below in order of importance.

A significant benefit from agency use of cloud technology is ability to leverage existing tools, templates and services. There is no longer a need to build complex monitoring systems when you can subscribe to SaaS offerings. In both AWS and Azure, pre-configured templates exist for quickly deploying virtual servers or even complete systems, e.g., a sandbox for a prototype SharePoint farm, which is freely available on GitHub. By running the JSON template in Azure an isolated environment is available in less than 30 minutes! Cloud software tools may emulate regular software tools or may be completely unique to the cloud experience, but either way, they can be extremely helpful in a variety of situations.

The second benefit from agency use of cloud technology is overall accessibility and delivery. Cloud technology offers much faster data and imagery delivery as compared to conventional means of data dissemination. Data can also be accessed at any time, and depending on infrastructure/partnership availability, can be accessed from anywhere. Adoption of cloud technology will lead to an even more connected world, and can assist the government in its international operations and functions. The use of cloud systems will help connect employees and aid in organization/project management. This will further bolster productivity and increase the speed of project turnaround.

A third benefit is its impact on mission planning, execution and success. With agency cloud capabilities, previously impossible or difficult to complete missions/objectives may be made possible. Use of the cloud will change the way missions are tackled. This could be a simple shift in deadline due to time reduction as a result of faster centralized, cloud-based processes, or could completely change the strategy depending on its impact on tactics, resources, partners, etc.

The final and sometimes controversial benefit from agency use of cloud technology is its perceived impact on financial cost reduction. Cost savings can be questionable since it is the product of a variety of factors, including size of the agency, capabilities needed, security/compliance requirements, implementation—the list goes on. Creating a cloud network that meets all the needs of an agency can be expensive initially. However, it is for the greater good, since the reductions in time and effort from efficiency boosts will outweigh the price. Additionally, cloud technology has the potential to actually pay itself off over a long period of time if operations and maintenance are sustainable. Simply put, it’s a large upfront cost but will enable significant gains in productivity, potential for mission success/future operations and temporal cost reductions, with the added benefit of an eventual payoff.

Compared to the recurring capital expense costs of upgrading on-premises data center hardware every three to seven years, moving to the cloud is worth every penny.

Zachary Chrisp is an intern with NJVC assisting the solutions architects group.