The federal government’s IT modernization journey could have been long and winding, if not for the Obama Administration’s 2010 Cloud First Strategy. In requiring agencies to push data, workloads, and apps to the cloud, Cloud First created the foundation for modernization and addressed, as then federal CIO Vivek Kundra noted “the cloud computing model can significantly help agencies grappling with the need to provide highly reliable, innovative services despite resource constraints.”
While the Cloud First Strategy turned out not to be the panacea for the federal government, it provided a strong foundation from which both cloud computing strategies and federal agencies could evolve. As agencies learned along the way, though, not every app or workload belonged in the cloud and choosing the wrong cloud could end up costing far more than it saved. The product of this learning – 2019’s Cloud Smart Strategy – continues to encourage agencies to move to the cloud, but with greater guidance to help to fully actualize the promise and potential of cloud-based technologies. This has, in turn, reinforced a nuanced cloud strategy does indeed provide a compelling business model for the federal government as well as a robust foundation for driving modernization and innovation.
Making Smarter Cloud Choices
Where the Cloud First Strategy succeeded was in introducing the foundational elements of a cloud environment – public and private clouds – as well as the different arrangements that could be used to deliver software, platforms, and infrastructure via the cloud ‘as-a-Service.’ The intended outcomes of lifting and shifting to the cloud were to reduce the costs of IT acquisition and maintenance from capital expenditures to operational expenditures. For example in acquiring software-as-a-Service agencies were able to buy licenses and in moving workloads to the cloud agencies were able to reduce their physical data center footprints and the myriad costs of from real estate purchases to heating and cooling expenses.
“Initially federal agencies were really good at getting the low hanging fruit into the cloud,” shared Cameron Chehreh, Federal Chief Technology Officer at Dell Technologies. “But what agencies found as they worked through their IT environments was that the cloud wasn’t as agile, cost-effective, and as mission-ready as it first appeared, and it was often incredibly expensive. In many ways the cloud was beginning to resemble legacy IT being both expensive and cumbersome.” The impact of this realization is that 10 years after Cloud First only 42 percent of federal IT workers surveyed by MeriTalk in 2020 said that their mission critical apps had been moved to the cloud, leaving agencies managing a fractured data environment at a time when running an integrated an interoperable IT environment has never been more important.
“Putting everything in the cloud, particularly the public cloud has created a drag on agencies both in terms of capability and as a financial penalty,” explained Rob Davies, Chief Operating Officer, at ViON. “To work as effectively as possible for citizens and the mission, agencies need to evaluate what workloads belong where, because every technology has its own set of economics.” To this end what Davies and Chehreh recommend for agencies is a multi-cloud environment.
The Advantages of a Multi-Cloud Environment
In short, a multi-cloud environment is made up public cloud instances, private clouds, on-premise data environments that work in concert to move data from the core to the edge to the cloud in near real-time to support an agency’s mission. A multi-cloud environment leverages existing technology investments made by an agency as well integrating new technologies that can scale as an agency’s data volume and mission complexity grow. This ability to scale at speed is particularly important as agencies begin to adopt AI, deploy IoT sensors, and make remote work a sustainable practice instead of just a pandemic necessity. “By building a multi-cloud environment that connects private on-prem clouds and multiple public clouds, agencies can quickly respond to the changing technology landscape and protect their investment with a highly adaptable solution,” explained Chehreh.
“An experienced cloud vendor can help an agency map and build its multi-cloud environment by first understanding application profiles and the connections, as well as the traffic patterns and performance applications that define the existing cloud environment,” he added. “Then, with this baseline data that’s derived from measurements and tooling, a vendor can then design, deploy, and if necessary, manage multi-cloud environment that’s purpose-built for that particular agency.”
In taking this approach, an agency can overcome financial, user experience, security, and operational barriers to cloud adoption. With 72 percent of federal IT leaders surveyed by MeriTalk concerned about the costs of cloud adoption, this road mapped journey to the multi-cloud is an important opportunity to manage costs. “Public clouds, for example are a very inexpensive place to store data, but if you need to extract data to put it to work – as agencies are doing more frequently as they work with AI – it suddenly becomes a very expensive option since egress costs are high,” explained Davies. “With a crumbling distinction between historic data and active data today as we enter the era of forever data, an on-premise private cloud is actually the more cost effective option for federal agencies.”
But it’s not just cost that’s a consideration when it comes to the cloud, there’s also user experience and security, risk, and compliance to consider too. Just as this distinction between historic data and active data is disappearing so too is where federal employees work and where and how end users access this data. With data needed in many different locations latency is an issue that has to be addressed. “When workloads are hosted across multiple cloud environments, user experience is often compromised,” explained Davies. “But in a multi-cloud environment with cloud monitoring tools that can be accessed easily in a single pane, workloads can be balanced between public and private clouds eliminating any impact on performance and user experience.”
Keeping workloads in the cloud secure has never been more important than it is now in the light of recent exploits and attacks against the federal government. While the federal government has worked diligently to bake security in to the cloud with FedRAMP and GovCloud offerings from all major public cloud vendors, there are still concerns over security given the sensitive nature of most government data. For Davis, it is for this reason that private clouds are often the right choice for federal workloads. “Private clouds can help agencies manage risk by diversifying operations and avoiding having all data and applications residing on one platform,” he explained. The diversification of cloud environments can also help agencies keep in compliance with federal regulations addressing not only how long data must be retained by an agency, but also who has access to the data. “No federal agency wants to see it’s name above the fold in the Washington Post in a story about a data breach,” Davies shared. “The ability to manage data in different clouds but still make it accessible to those who need it is a compelling argument for a multi-cloud environment.”
While moving to a multi-cloud environment clearly makes sense from an IT perspective it also helps agencies address some of their long-standing business issues, such as resolving key procurement issues. “In a multi-cloud environment agencies are able to use an as-a-Service model for procurement of compute and storage,” shared Chehreh. “Using as-a-Service procurement streamlines what were cumbersome and lengthy processes an replaces them with the ability to purchase and standup additional capacity instantaneously with appropriate oversight and governance built in. This benefit is only slightly overshadowed by the near elimination of overbuying or underestimating needed capacity in advance of a project and likewise eliminates poor budget management.”
Today’s best-of-breed solutions include a Marketplace – a purpose-built governance platform for multi-cloud environments. Through the Marketplace, agencies have an holistic view of their multi-cloud environment to execute on ordering and monitor billing, asset management and utilization, event monitoring, incident management, and deliver FITARA-compliant reporting all in a single pane. “With this approach to getting to the cloud, federal IT leaders don’t need to focus on workloads, performance, security, and availability but can instead focus on the mission,” said Davies.
With today’s complex missions demanding data, speed, and security, it’s imperative that federal agencies have the right cloud infrastructure in place. Gone are the days when agencies could deliver on the IT mission with just a data center, off-site storage for backup, and a single public cloud instance. By standing up a multi-cloud environment with a Marketplace, agencies are not just mission-ready today, but are able to drive their IT modernization journeys further.
“The underpinning of the original Cloud First strategy was to help agencies reduce their IT costs by moving to the cloud and being able to procure software, platforms, and infrastructure as-a-Service, but it failed agencies because it lacked nuance and sophistication,” concluded Davies. “With a multi-cloud environment not only are costs contained by having the right workloads in the right place, but agencies are able to address the challenges they’ve faced for many years with security, risk and compliance, user experience, and business operations. This is a compelling model for the federal government, one which will serve agencies well as they fully embrace the era of data-driven government.”