One of the U.S. Air Force’s most important online portals is now running in the cloud.
MyPers, the Air Force’s personnel portal for 1.7 million active duty and retired airmen, civilian and reservists, began operating in July out of an Oracle-managed off-premise cloud specifically designed and secured to handle some of the Defense Department’s most sensitive unclassified workloads.
It’s the first software-as-a-service accredited implementation for a cloud provider at DOD impact level 4, according to Bill Marion, the Air Force’s deputy chief information officer.
More importantly, it’s improving the reliability and security of one of the Air Force’s most-used applications. The portal is used for transactions and questions around retirement, benefits and other personnel issues, and touches the Air Force’s back-end civilian systems.
“We absolutely have gotten everything out of it to show how cloud computing can add mission value to our personnel community,” Marion told Nextgov.
MyPers’ cloud instantiation achieved initial operating capability in nine months, Marion said, despite the bureaucratic challenges that come with being an early adopter of technology the Pentagon embraces cautiously. Much of that time was spent “working through security issues” inherent in migrating an outdated yet complex system to the cloud, Marion said.
Marion said before the move to Oracle, MyPers was some “16 versions behind,” and not surprisingly, this led to security concerns and capability issues. Marion said the old system experienced “minor to major incidents on a pretty regular basis,” and in the personnel world, “once a month is dramatic.”
“I worried about that system on a day-to-day basis,” Marion said. “Someone wants to put in paperwork for retirement, and 100 percent availability is where we want to be.”
So far, the Oracle-managed cloud has only had of two minor outages caused by the government, not the cloud provider, according to Marion.
In addition, the move caught MyPers up to present-day security and policy automation. Much of the buzz about cloud computing centers around cost savings in government, but in this case, cost savings are less important than mission performance. The more apt way to describe the Air Force’s expectations for savings are in cost avoidance rather than cost savings.
“It wasn’t about near-term savings—it’s roughly a net wash as far as bill-writing,” said Marion, though he noted savings will accumulate from a decrease in manpower required to operate the Air Force’s IT footprint.
“But what we’re finding is the ability to now focus on services versus focusing on infrastructure,” Marion said. “We’re now able to implement a user-intuitive, TurboTax-kind of interface customers expect instead of a federal form structure, with a better cyber platform.” Time spent managing legacy hardware “has flipped,” Marion added, allowing Oracle to operate the cloud while the Air Force can take the time it used to spend triaging servers and spend it assisting airmen.
Efforts like the Air Force cloud transition are not yet common, but early successes could shine a light for other military branches and DOD wings looking to get off legacy systems.
While the federal government intends to spend some $7.3 billion on provisioned services like cloud, DOD has been slower to adopt it, though its top tech officials believe it’s in the “right spot.” Fewer cloud vendors have made inroads to the DOD market because it demands more from a security perspective. The potential customer base exists: The Pentagon spends some $35 billion on IT each year.
“It’s a fine balance,” said Tamara Greenspan, vice president of business applications for Oracle public sector. “You have to have customers who want to uptake it, you have to make the investment and work with them to see what their interests are. As a vendor, we needed the government push to get through the processes being defined and how to do it. It’s hard to meet [requirements] when they are constantly evolving.”
Cautious as the military has been in adopting commercial cloud solutions, efforts like the MyPers transition—if it remains successful—should encourage the government “to have more faith in moving to these kind of environments,” Greenspan added.