Drop the ‘Magic’ Cloud Talk and 5 Other Steps to Cloud Migration Success

everything possible/Shutterstock.com

Agency CIOs and other tech officials need to clarify the conversations around cloud.

Dan Chenok is the executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government

The IBM Center recently hosted a roundtable discussion among several agency chief information officers and IT leaders about the state of play when it comes to cloud migration.

Participants shared insights and perspectives about success factors, lessons learned and areas where further thinking and research would benefit government.

Six key themes emerged from the discussion:

1. Establishing Consistent Understanding of What “Cloud” Means  

There is a need for common understanding and language across agencies -- and between CIO organizations, business units and program offices -- to clarify the conversations around "cloud."  

The Office of Management and Budget, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the General Services Administration can help to advance this consistent framework, which could address a number of elements:

  • The connection between cloud and data center consolidation
  • A way to describe migration of applications and workloads into the cloud
  • Setting out a common view for how cloud is operationalized and consumed. Elements include: bandwidth, storage, electricity, rent, cost models and user expectations
  • Shared performance metrics and service-level agreements across agencies, in areas spanning security, availability, scalability, price and efficiency

2. Adopting an Enterprise View -- Which Differs from a Consumer View

For the government and other large organizations, enterprise cloud requirements are those large set of requirements for exchanging information, with the proper security, all scaled to the massive size of the organization.

Consumer requirements differ in that they focus more on meeting individual demand and expectation for services. Most users see cloud at home (Amazon, Google) and think this can easily scale to enterprise.

However, enterprise environments bring differences that include size, complexity, interfaces with legacy systems and security (see discussion of security below).

Agency leaders should engage in discussions with each other, users, staff and industry partners about unique and common elements between the two spaces. Managing expectations of end users is important, including debunking the idea that the cloud offers “magic” solutions that solve core issues of aligning technology to mission and program objectives. At the same time, agencies should assess how to adapt advances in the consumer space for government enterprise solutions.

Finally, many program leaders in agencies, who own lines of business or applications, do not have technical expertise to incorporate the full benefits of how cloud impacts them from an enterprise business perspective, and how they can buy and build cloud-based systems to support their programs.

The government would benefit from research that addresses how best to educate users so they can understand and leverage the benefits of the cloud, while recognizing and mitigating risks.

3. Integrating Cloud Innovations with Legacy Systems

Agencies operate many of their programs in IT environments that are years and sometimes decades old, which are hosted from a variety of computing environments ranging from data centers and mainframes to client-server applications.

These legacy systems provide the foundation for information that agencies use to run programs. Moving to a cloud environment can provide significant cost and performance advantages in program delivery, but only if requirements for information and transactions enable the new approach to continue with service delivery so that users do not lose access to what they need.

Accordingly, an important aspect of any cloud migration involves working with agency users to help define requirements for their programs, so that agency IT leaders can understand and communicate goals for architecting the migration to optimize performance. Such an approach will allow agencies to derive maximum advantage in adopting cloud-based infrastructure and applications.

The most advanced agencies will link this with a means to track and integrate innovations in commercial cloud technology into their migration strategies.

Because most agencies lack a strong process for accessing and adapting private sector innovation, system integrators can be key partners in accessing advances in the private sector to help build maturity of cloud applications in government. Agency leaders say SIs can help to translate the cloud offerings, managed services and similar commercial models for best use by government.

4. Budgeting and Buying Cloud Services  

The government is still in the early stages of understanding how to budget for the cloud, including how to purchase cloud services under existing procurement rules and norms.  

Concerns continue about how implementation under the Federal Acquisition Regulation drives current government contracting and billing models that do not match commercial cloud provisioning and budget/spend models. The latter are often done through flexible and scalable funding arrangements that do not reflect current spending paths that call for advanced expectation of funds into accounts based on a fiscal-year calendar.  

Similarly, the difference in how fixed and variable costs are best optimized does not match conventional cost estimation and pricing models

Strategies to address this concern include:

  • Greater granularity in cost identification and billing to help drive budget estimating; government would benefit from how businesses have approached
  • Greater use of franchise fund flexibility, allowing for multiyear funding.
  • Communication to program offices that a new cloud acquisition paradigm will be more cost effective – education users and mission leaders about cost drivers, and promoting transparency on how flexible spending models can address these drivers more effectively in a cloud environment.

5. Building Security in the Cloud  

Cloud systems provide robust security, if well implemented.  

The government has benefited in recent years through advancing programs that include the Trusted Internet Connections initiative, known as TIC, and the Department of Homeland Security’s Einstein programs for network visibility.

DHS and the Interior Department are co-chairs on a TIC working group looking at cloud implementation. In addition, Managed Trusted Internet Protocol Service may have a growing impact to security in the cloud.

The ability to obtain TIC protection without having to come back to an organization’s TIC infrastructure may make migrating to the cloud much more feasible and practical, especially for for many small and mid-sized organizations.  

Finally, the use of FedRAMP for cloud systems security certification could be expanded to promote security “up the stack” for software applications, enabling agencies to leverage a broader array of approved cloud services without needing to repeat costly certification and accreditation in advance.

An important facilitator to allow agencies flexibility to implement strong security in the cloud would be reducing variability in how oversight entities, including the Government Accountability Office and agency inspectors general assess cloud security across agencies.

One strategy for accomplishing this could be to have IGs consult with third-party experts as they conduct reviews, and treat their opinions not as compliance exercises but rather as input into business decisions -- similar to how auditor opinions are used in financial services sector security reviews.

This would require some changes to the guidance for how IGs operate under OMB guidance that implements the Federal Information Security Management Act, which was just updated in December to adopt the Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation program run by DHS and other approaches as expectations for agencies.

Finally, as with any IT environment, understanding of risk management in the cloud context is critical. Just as with commercial organizations, agencies can never get to 100 percent security if they are operating over any network that can be accessed from outside a firewall.  

An important element of demonstrating strong security in the cloud -- recognizing that this does not mean perfect security, but rather risk-based approach that provides for resiliency in the fact of inevitable vulnerabilities, threats and incidents -- is the continued evolution of metrics that are understood an advance and made transparent in review.  

In this way, users, oversight bodies and program leaders and stakeholders will know in advance how security is being addressed within the cloud and can assess performance against those well-understood metrics.

6. Developing Skilled Personnel.  

Any implementation of cloud will rely on agency leaders and managers who understand how to manage effectively in the cloud, and technical experts who can work with industry to bring cloud innovation into agencies for strong performance and strong security.  

Hiring flexibilities should be leveraged to build cloud experts in agencies.

The Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration are working to help agencies attract such talent. In addition, strategies to retain key staff must be addressed given competition with industry for skilled cloud leaders. Similarly, CIOs and agency cloud leaders can recognize the importance of succession planning, given the risk of a loss in institutional knowledge as federal leaders retire or move to another job.

(Image via everything possible/ Shutterstock.com)