4 Steps to Consider When Creating a Cloud Strategy in 2016

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To become a source of competitive advantage, federal IT administrators implementing a cloud strategy should consider the following steps.

Adam Clater is a chief cloud architect in Red Hat’s public sector.

Ever since the National Institute of Standards and Technology published its definition of cloud computing, government agencies and industry have worked together to diligently embrace and deploy cloud infrastructure throughout government IT.

We have seen a combination of public as well as private clouds -- with some agencies emerging as providers to others within the federal government. We have also witnessed different agencies pooling cloud resources to create community clouds so they adhere to various regulatory compliance mandates while saving time, money and resources.

We can say with confidence that government has made strides in the adoption of cloud technologies. In fact, a recent report by Market Research Media projects federal cloud spending to surpass $10 billion by 2020.

The reasons for this growth are manifold. At its core, the cloud helps agencies improve the services they provide while lowering the cost of providing and maintaining the resulting applications and infrastructure. Agencies can do this while providing an environment for innovation and better engagement with end users. These results have become the rallying cry of CIOs throughout the government.

Expectations of end users and customers have evolved as well. Driven by the consumerization of IT, contemporary users expect iPad simplicity with Gmail reliability. Mobile and social interaction have become the norm. As such, users expect updates and innovation to be delivered seamlessly, in the same way Facebook or Amazon might release a new feature to their social and online shopping experiences.

Accordingly, federal CIOs are frequently finding that their agencies are evolving into technology-focused agencies. The success of digital services organizations within the Commerce Department, the General Services Administration and other government arms amplifies this new reality.

The upside of this evolution is that IT can become a source of competitive advantage and drive deep engagement with its constituencies and business partners.

To realize this potential, federal IT administrators implementing a cloud strategy should consider the following steps:

Start small by taking a staged approach. Choose a small, user-focused application (a.k.a. system of engagement) to build a proof point around both cloud and agile development approaches. In the beginning, stay away from applications that require wholesale change to existing data and application infrastructure.

Embrace automation. Automation is the name of the game when it comes to cloud. If virtual servers require human interaction to provision or update, seek the tooling that can automate these practices.

The same goes for application deployment and scaling. Remember, as soon as a user has to log into a server in the cloud, the value of that implementation is diminished. The good news is these practices can be developed within existing data centers using just a bit of new tooling to build Continuous Integration and Continuous Deployment infrastructure.

Consider containers. Containerization can also play an important role in guiding automation and deployment strategies. Containers provide a standardized interface around applications for startup and shutdown and, when used appropriately, can provide capabilities to move workloads between disparate cloud providers. Orchestration engines like Kubernetes provide the ability to then manage containers at scale.

Develop an exit strategy. Jim Whitehurst, Red Hat’s CEO, once said, “cloud has the potential to be the mother of all lock-in.” How true that has turned out to be. When we begin to adopt cloud providers, we risk trading our proprietary database or middleware lock-in for a much more insidious lock-in potential.

As we build applications in a cloud-provided panacea, we have the potential to design solutions that can never feasibly exist within any other cloud.

With that in mind, developing a cloud exit strategy becomes as important as having an entry strategy. In fact, they should be developed hand in hand, to enable a valid and open alternative to either bring applications back into the government data center, or migrate them to another cloud provider.

Otherwise, federal IT administrators run the risk of their projects costing millions of dollars and headaches to relocate from one cloud provider to another. Just ask Verizon customers impacted by the company’s recent decision to close cloud centers about how much of a challenge this can be.

To avoid this issue, stick to technologies that are open and based on industry standards so all of the latest and greatest widgets can easily be moved between cloud providers.

Because of this heightened focus on cloud technology, you might think we have reached a government cloud nirvana, while we know the truth is anything but.

Deployment of resources within data centers can still take days, weeks, or even months in our virtualized world. Moving workloads between disparate cloud providers still proves to be problematic at best and impossible at worst. And too often, cloud approaches get boiled down to lowering the total cost of ownership of individual servers or virtual machines, rather than laying a foundation for innovation.

But rest assured -- the future is bright, and the cloud offers the federal government immense adaptability, agility, and efficiencies. It all depends on how federal IT administrators choose to view the cloud, and the steps they take to implement a cloud strategy.

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