Cloud computing, or the use of remote servers and services hosted on the internet, has rapidly become the norm for information technology in the federal government, and for good reason.
Blog Co-Authors: Rasheedat Osei-Acheampong, partner and delivery executive of hybrid cloud transformation at IBM; Emma Shirato Almon, Associate Manager, Partnership for Public Service; Mark Lerner, Senior Manager, Technology and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology defines cloud computing by its benefits: “ubiquitous, convenient on-demand access” to computing power with minimal management effort. Since the release of the Cloud First strategy in 2011, and its 2019 update Cloud Smart, it is no longer in question whether agencies should adopt cloud platforms, but how.
Along with federal cloud computing leaders, the Partnership for Public Service and the IBM Center for The Business of Government are surveying the current landscape of cloud adoption and distilling key learnings. Here, we outline three stages of cloud adoption and the considerations relevant to each one. These insights are informed by the perspectives of three federal IT experts: Akanksha Sharma from the Office of Personnel Management, Jonathan Alboum from ServiceNow, and Capt. Joseph Baczkowski from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Stage 1: Cloud infrastructure for mission-specific needs
In this first stage, early adopters and innovators within subagencies and offices independently move to the cloud to support their mission-specific needs.
At NOAA, researchers collect earth and environmental data, and rely on reliable and continuous network access enabled by cloud technologies. However, as Capt. Baczkowski noted, the agency “mission covers basically from the sun all the way down to the deepest part of the water, so you can imagine there is a lot of variety and a lot of different approaches to accomplishing those specific mission areas.” Each of NOAA’s six offices have found their own solutions with different cloud services and providers.
Alboum similarly reflected on his time at the Department of Agriculture, noting that “a place like USDA has such diverse missions—from fighting forest fires to writing nutrition policy to working with farmers and ranchers to doing research on animal and plant genomes—that it’s hard to say there’s one-size-fits-all for anything.” He emphasized the need for dialogue and collaboration between IT and program teams to develop and source services that are appropriate for all purposes.
Stage 2: Agencywide cloud enablement
However, this flexible approach comes at the cost of complexity and decentralization. To handle everyday essential processes like billing, data-sharing and collaboration, agencies often move towards centralized platforms, applications and infrastructure, in a process known as cloud enablement.
Capt. Baczkowski contended that NOAA’s cloud program management office found its value-add by supporting agencywide authentication, networking, and cybersecurity that apply “no matter what cloud system or on-premise setup you have.”
These agencywide solutions should enable both centralized management and the development of new and novel tools while providing a working foundation for offices to innovate. “You want to be able to have innovation at the edges, but at the same time everything needs to be governed,” Sharma said.
Stage 3: Cloud technology for future transformation
The stability and security provided by cloud services and business-oriented solutions allows agency innovators to focus their efforts on developing more ambitious programs and ideas.
At OPM, a centralized architecture enables the agency to store, structure and analyze troves of federal workforce data. Now, Sharma spends her days thinking up new digital services and products that can give agencies, current and prospective federal employees, and researchers more immediate access to data and trends. “If you’re going to build something today,” she said, “cloud technology is a great place to start.”
Arriving at this stage takes investment, development and a significant focus on change management. It’s well worth the effort, though, as it combines the benefits of allowing for mission-specific use cases with those of centralized problem-solving.
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As agencies move through these stages to develop cloud-enabled services, they must also keep cybersecurity front of mind in a similar fashion—centralized and streamlined but allowing for ingenuity and flexibility.
This blog draws on the first session in our Cloud Computing Webinar Series co-hosted with the Partnership for Public Service. View session details and the program recording here.