A new take on the cloud divide: 'It's pets and cattle'

Shutterstock image (by Maksim Kababou): cloud technology concept.

(Image: Maksim Kabakou / Shutterstock)

While some federal agencies have legacy systems that require hand-feeding and constant care like coddled family pets, others are herding their applications onto the open range of cloud services -- and some are doing both.

"It's pets and cattle," explained Gunnar Hellekson, chief strategist for the U.S. public sector. "Pets have names," and their owners part with them only as a dire last resort -- and highly customized legacy systems can spark similar feeling of attachment. In the emerging cloud-based applications development world, however, apps -- like beef cattle -- are used up, easily replaced and interchangeable, he said. Federal agencies, are somewhere in the middle with their work – maybe more like the teenager who has bottle-fed her calf for 4-H, but knows what lies at the end of the process.

Federal CIOs who participated in a Feb. 12 cloud event with Hellekson illustrated the point. The Federal Communications Commission, said Deputy CIO John Skudlarek, is packed with legacy systems that have been hand crafted by IT managers to perform specific tasks. The agency is looking to modernize its applications development capabilities rapidly, but not necessarily at the expense of its older systems.

"We have a legacy infrastructure ... a stew of operating systems. We virtualized systems, but now we have stove-piped virtualized systems," which aren't reusable for other purposes, he said. The agency is now moving to develop apps and platforms that can be used across the agency.

Skudlarek said when he was brought onboard in 2013 to help modernize IT operations, the FCC had 207 systems for 1,700 employees. Now, he said, there are about 100. On Jan. 7 the agency rolled out one of its first publicly available online interactive portals, a consumer complaint service that allows the public to tap the FCC's Consumer Help Center database, as well as file and track complaints about phone companies, radio and television broadcasts and operations.

Skudlarek called development of the portal a "microcosm" of the new vs. old IT environment at the FCC. The two cultures can mesh, he said, but it takes some work. With a massive auction of broadcast spectrum, which the FCC wants to support with online interactive functionality, looming in early 2016, "we can't afford to drop the ball" on merging applications development, Skudlarek said.

The Commerce Department, meanwhile, "is a late adopter" of most technologies, said CIO Steve Cooper. Nevertheless, Commerce is moving ahead with an ambitious plan to migrate to a cloud services model for its many components.

What began in June as a project to fix operational issues at Commerce's sprawling Washington, D.C., headquarters has widened to a larger effort "to bring Commerce into the 21st century," he said. The move to cloud services is aimed at ridding the agency of IT gear that not only depreciates, but is a huge expense to refresh. "We're moving from a capital-based to an operational-based expense model" for IT operations, he said.

That move, however, comes with some caveats, particularly regarding what kind of cloud-based managed service environment the agency can use for the massive and possibly sensitive data sets for which it's responsible. This includes data from the upcoming census in 2020.

Using a government-community cloud makes sense for most applications at Commerce, he said, but the census data and operations will need more protection, he said, especially if the bureau moves ahead with an online "self register" process that eliminates costly follow-up workers in the field. "If I screw up and get a data breach of the census data, I could face 10 years in jail and a $250,000 fine" under federal law, he said. "Private cloud is probably the way to go."

As agencies become more comfortable and facile with service level agreements with commercial cloud providers and established working relationships with the new guard of service providers, the distinction between public and private cloud will disappear, said GSA CIO Sonny Hashmi.

"I feel that the private cloud is a bit transitional. The full public cloud can't meet all the requirements yet," Hashmi said, but public cloud providers such as like Amazon Web Services and Box are maturing in their offerings to federal agencies.

"We need to build a new public/private partnership model," he said, much like older-era IT contractors who stored data and performed other offsite functions for federal agencies. "We have created a compliance monster that assumes everything should live at the agency."

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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