How the Cloud Can Shake Legacy Tech Out of Agencies

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Riverbed Technology IT executives Jerry Kennelly and Davis Johnson share insight into the government’s tech challenges, legacy systems and why Silicon Valley matters more than ever to government.

In 2002, Jerry Kennelly, then a chief finance officer, and Steve McCanne, a University of California, Berkeley professor with a Ph.D. in network engineering and computer design, met at a Starbucks on the Cal-Berkeley campus. They had an idea for a business and some cash they each put down—$5,000 to be precise. Convinced of the potential of their future venture, Kennelly and McCanne both quit their jobs to devote their time and energy to their newly founded startup.

Nearly 15 years later, the San Francisco-headquartered Riverbed Technology—whose company and product names originate in fishing—has 2,400 employees in 37 countries. Last year, the IT company did a $1 billion in worldwide revenue, developing products to bolster application performance over wide area networks.

“It is a nice little business,” as Kennelly jokingly put it. “It was a very good use of $5,000.”

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Nextgov’s Executive Editor Camille Tuutti spoke with Kennelly and Davis Johnson, vice president and head of U.S. public sector, about the government’s challenges with technology, legacy systems and why Silicon Valley matters more than ever to government.

Jerry Kennelly
Davis Johnson

This conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Nextgov: What are some of the specific challenges you see agencies still have in migrating to the cloud? We ran a piece recently that said email as a service is dead in government. What’s your take on that?

Jerry Kennelly:  I wouldn’t say everyone has done [cloud] yet; it is still the early days. I think the “cloud first” [initiative] started roughly five years ago, which in federal government terms is like a year. These are huge agencies and they carry enormous burdens. I just came from a conference with some of the [Defense Department] IT people. DOD is the largest IT network in the world. These are giant responsibilities. It takes time, and they have to do it carefully. They are still very much in the middle of it. There is a lot of migration left to be done.

Davis Johnson: I agree with everything that Jerry said. I’m surprised to hear that a lot of people in government are saying that email as a service is dead because I still see a lot of government agencies struggling with that. …. It is still a big part of my business and I think there is a year or two left on that.

We also are seeing a lot of the agency specific applications . . . now moving to private and public cloud—and that’s kind of the next wave. We’re spending a lot of the time on big projects; for instance, the big one that everyone is talking about is the census and how do we make sure that they have a successful outcome versus with what happened with [], which wasn’t so successful.

Nextgov: Legacy IT systems have been a huge challenge for federal agencies and there are many initiatives underway to revamp those systems. What are some of the things you see your government customers struggling with when it comes to this area?

Kennelly: To get out of the legacy systems, which are on older software packages, they have to rewrite the software using modern coding techniques and modern application techniques. The way you write software is a function called DevOps—you have to write, create and test the new software applications that will replace the legacy systems.

Public cloud is the perfect place to DevOps ware because you require large amounts of compute power, a lot of equipment and an environment for developing, testing and deploying new applications. It’s very expensive to provision that yourself as an agency: to have a huge room full of millions and millions of dollars of equipment just to do DevOps development and testing.

We know the public agencies are using the public cloud as the test and development place where they do all of their DevOps work to take them out of the legacy world and to do all of the deployments that they are going to have to do. That is very important and a big benefit to the federal government to have the DevOps environment in the public cloud.

Johnson: One thing I see a lot is a lot of the legacy systems that they government is still using are highly decentralized in nature so their legacy client computing implementations and the government and the commercial world as well, but especially the government right now is really focused on how can we get a lot of that IT infrastructure out of the edge because all of those edge sites are points of attack and points of potential failure.

Nextgov: What are some of the other technology challenges you are seeing in agencies?

Johnson:  The biggest challenges right now have to do with mobile—cybersecurity is still No. 1. It was one of the original top five along with the data center consolidation issue. It has not gone away. It has kind of gone beyond data center consolidation. We’re spending a lot of time on mobile, bring your own device, bring your own device, migration to the cloud, digital government services and the internet of things.

We see a lot of government agencies coming to us as well as other industry partners and asking how we can move these services to a more digital type of format so that we look and feel more like an Uber. Citizen services need to evolve quickly because the world has gotten to a place where the consumer of government services is expecting to get to ... whether it is the Virginia Department of Transportation or their iOS website and have the same flexibility, mobility and speed as Amazon, Uber and all of those services.

There is a big trend right now with our customers asking how we can help them feel more like what the millennials are used to because they don’t have the patience to go and stand in line at the DMV. They want everything available all of the time on their phone and that is a big trend right now.

Nextgov: We have seen agencies pluck talent from Silicon Valley to lead digital government efforts or whatever other projects or programs they have. What do you see in that area?

Kennelly: We are seeing more and more particularly in larger agencies making at least once a year and sometimes twice a year trips to the San Francisco Bay area and they will spend a week and meet eight different technology companies and have presentations and learn the latest cutting-edge stuff. We’re a part of that process as well.

It is very important for us to have that communication back and forth and it is important for the agencies to learn our future road maps and cutting edge, best-of-breed new technologies that are coming up to benefit the government. It is a very important exchange and it is more active today than I’ve ever seen it. I think that will only increase as time goes on.

It has been an interesting evolution in Silicon Valley. San Francisco for years was sort of out of the loop and it was all down in Sunnyvale, Mountain View and San Jose, which is 50 miles south of San Francisco.

About seven or eight years ago, all of the young smart kids who had Ph.D.s and master’s degrees in computer engineering from the big schools—MIT, Stanford and Carnegie Mellon—come out there at 23 or 24 years old and say, "why do I want to be in Silicon Valley?" which is kind of an ugly, soulless place when they can be in San Francisco, which has parks, nightclubs and shops and the bay and is a beautiful urban center for a sophisticated college graduate.

In the last seven years, San Francisco has just exploded. It is on fire and has become the capital city of Silicon Valley. I put my headquarters right in downtown San Francisco. I was one of the first of the enterprise infrastructure class companies, specifically as a recruiting base so that I could get the best and brightest of the young people out of the universities. If someone comes to see us in downtown San Francisco and we are close to a lot of cultural things and nightlife, and then they go down into the Valley, which is kind of dead place for old married people.