Feds showcase successful moves to the cloud

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Until recently, the Interior Department used 14 separate email systems for its 77,000 employees, and had no way to send an employee-wide message.

But as part of agency's IT transformation initiative, DOI moved those systems' email to a single cloud-based email application called Bison Connect.

Bison, powered by Google Apps for Government, allowed DOI to deploy cloud-based email, calendar services, chat, document creation and web development applications within 150 days, according to CIO Bernie Mazer, one of several panelists to discuss cloud use cases in government at the Federal Cloud Computing Summit in Washington, D.C., on May 30.

"We can now send out all-employee emails, which we couldn't do in the past," Mazer said. "Cloud gave us the opportunity to maximize value of what we have. We want to eliminate wasteful IT spending and shift IT investments to more cloud-based IT investments and platforms." He said the email consolidation was one of several cloud initiatives DOI expects to roll out in the coming months.

The move was not 'easy. In fact, Mazer said, change management was one of several challenges the agency dealt with in shifting to a cloud-based IT strategy. "There were strong antibodies for change in that department," he said, "people accustomed to traditional email."

The agency had a limited budget to make the jump to cloud-based email and other applications, but with increasingly tighter budgets providing the main incentive for the jump in the first place, Mazer said cost probably wasn't even the most important risk factor.

There were technical issues, too – like integrating a cloud messaging system with one of DOI's documentation systems – but nothing that outweighed the benefits of cheaper, more efficient and agile services that the agency now has in place.

As for security – an important concern that Gartner technology futurist David Cearley told the audience earlier was sometimes used as an excuse to not do cloud – Mazer said DOI's cloud efforts began before FedRAMP stood up, but the agency will be compliant with the cloud security initiative by 2014.

"It's robust, it works, and it's not only just pure email, but it's about tools that are available," Mazer said.

The cloud is working well elsewhere in government, too.

John Lalley, who oversees IT for the federal courts' financial systems, and Keith Trippie, executive director for the Enterprise System Development Office at the Department of Homeland Security, provided specific use cases from their respective departments.

Lalley said the Judicial Branch has embraced software as a service (SaaS) and infrastructure as a service (IaaS) with its two clouds, beginning a five-year process to consolidate more than 90 separate financial systems used by 32,000 employees in 94 district courts across the country.

The result will be a single system, Lalley said, and virtualization will enable him to support that system with five servers rather than the current 60.

Cloud made sense, Lalley said, because it is easily scalable – "we didn't want to scale all at once" – cost benefits were easy to document, and security concerns were alleviated by FedRAMP.

He also recommended that feds looking to implement cloud-based solutions talk to others that have already done it. "We went out and talked to several agencies about operational costs and risks," Lalley said. Of all the cloud efforts highlighted at the Federal Cloud Computing Summit, those at DHS' were the oldest and most developed, with roots dating back to at least 2009.

The department operates nine private clouds and three public clouds, Trippie said, with 112,000 employees using cloud-based email services and 30,000 employees utilizing one of the department's private collaboration clouds.

Trippie described the methodology DHS used to decide whether to use a public or private cloud for certain information, and it's not complicated. "Sensitive data, put on a private cloud, non-sensitive data, put on a public cloud," he said. "That's as simple as we made it. There are more opportunities we're looking at over the next 12 to 18 months where we may start leveraging toward a public cloud, but don't overthink it."

Trippie said public cloud efforts at DHS include standing up ten public-facing website – including the department's flagship site (www.dhs.gov) and the Transportation Security Administration's website (www.tsa.gov) – all of them launched in less than one year because "we didn't have to go around standing up infrastructure." None of those sites use proprietary software, Trippie added.

He also noted that the website shifts were accelerated because component agencies "wanted a fast move, too." The same could not be said for the agency's private cloud services, however, which 'have been slowed by component pushback.

Trippie said challenges faced at DHS in moving to more cloud-based services were not much different than what you might see at other federal agencies, but he did offer advice to agencies who want to make the most of their existing employee resources.

"Have a place for folks who go from legacy environments to new cloud-based environments – give 'em a soft place to land," Trippie said.

Trippie said DHS has stood up a "development-test environment" that provides "a soft spot from the old world to the new world" where employees can up their skills.

Still, cloud is relatively new, and many challenges remain, Trippie said – perhaps the greatest of which is getting the people with decision-making power to "taking their foot off the gas pedal and put on" cloud-based cruise control.

"Some of the biggest challenges we have in getting folks moving to cloud is letting go," Trippie said. Internally, the cloud is managed differently, and Trippie said it is vital some decision-makers and managers "cede some control" and let cloud happen.

In some agencies across government, that is happening. At others, it's still a work in progress.

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.


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