Planning key to cloud success, agency CIOs say

Friday - 9/28/2012, 11:00am EDT

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Just a few short years ago, cloud computing in the federal government was a new, largely untested technology.

Since then, a number of agencies have made high-profile migrations to cloud platforms and the Obama administration has issued sweeping guidance mandating agencies identify and transition services and applications to host in the cloud.

For a look at how agencies are faring in their shifts to the cloud and the issues they continue to face, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp hosted a panel discussion, "Clearing the Fog Around Cloud Computing," sponsored by Level 3 Communications.

Some agencies made early progress

The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp hosted the panel discussion, "Clearing the fog around cloud computing," sponsored by Level 3 Communications. Guests included:
  • Thomas Bayer, the chief information officer at Securities and Exchange Commission

  • Robert Bohn, the cloud computing program manager and reference architecture lead in the Information Technology Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology

  • Mike Wash, the chief information officer at National Archives and Records Administration

  • Mike Parker, the deputy chief information officer at the Treasury Department

While many agencies transitioned to the cloud following the mandates laid out in the 25-point IT reform plan, others had already planned their cloud moves.

That's true of the Treasury Department, which switched to the cloud for web hosting, said Mike Parker, Treasury's deputy chief information officer.

That transition proved "very successful," he said. "And from my perspective, some of the lessons learned are that the successful execution doesn't change. The prescription truly is good planning, good business cases and good governance. That results in good outcomes."

The officials pointed to the importance of planning before and during the transition.

"It's a big difference between having your own infrastructure and being able to go in an put applications on your infrastructure to knowing that your infrastructure is essentially up in a cloud," said Mike Wash, the chief information officer at the National Archives and Records Administration. "It requires more planning and an understanding of who's going to integrate and who's going to test and how it's all going to flow."

'Hiccups' spur IT transformation

NARA experienced its "share of hiccups," in one of the largest cloud projects it undertook: the release of 1940 Census data last April through a cloud-hosted website. Wash said it was the "largest digital release on a single day in the history of the federal government."

Despite the best planning, NARA underestimated the interest the project would spark and the volume of web traffic it would draw — 37 million hits in the first few hours after the data was released, alone.

From the left: Emily Kopp, Mike Wash, Thomas Bayer, Mike Parker, Thomas Bayer, Robert Bohn and Tom Temin

Click image to enlarge

"And even though we were in a fully elastic cloud, it took us several hours to tune the environment to really be able to support the millions of visitors who were coming to that site," Wash said.

For the SEC, an IT hiccup actually spurred its move to the cloud, said Thomas Bayer, the commission's chief information officer.

When Facebook entered its S-1 filing, as an initial step in going public, it "outstripped" the agency's ability to serve network traffic, Bayer said. "Our systems worked great but our network wasn't big enough to hold all the interest from the filing public."

As a result, SEC took its operations to the cloud in an expedited, one-week move, Bayer said. "We worked very effectively with the cloud provider and it was a very successful integration and implementation, and it allowed us to really flex up for a global expansion in demand."

Later, when Facebook filed its amended S-1 form, "we had plenty of bandwidth and availability of the systems," Bayer said.

Overall, SEC has moved more than 40 applications to the cloud as part of a broader plan to invest in and modernize its technology infrastructure.

Similarly, Treasury moved its website to the Amazon cloud "with no hiccups, whatsoever," Parker said. Treasury is now embarking on a private cloud environment. "And what we learned early on, is that we have to include security as part of the planning process from day one," he added. "This can't be something that you do after the fact. It has to be built into the planning."

Emphasis on security

The emphasis on security aligns with broader policy guidance being developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Last fall, NIST published a draft roadmap for cloud computing standards and technology for federal agencies said Robert Bohn, the agency's cloud computing program manager and reference architecture lead in the Information Technology Laboratory.

NIST expects to release a final version in January.

The guide lists 10 requirements for agencies to move into the cloud.

"Certainly, security is a big topic, but also one other thing that's needed is an adherence or involuntary, consensus-based standards for cloud computing to avoid vendor lock-in in the future," Bohn said.

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