Close the Data Center, Skip the TIC – How One Agency Bought Big Into Cloud

It’s no longer a question of whether the federal government is going to fully embrace cloud computing. It’s how fast.

With the White House pushing for cloud services as part of its broader cybersecurity strategy and budgets getting squeezed by the administration and Congress, chief information officers (CIOs) are coming around to the idea that the faster they can modernize their systems, the faster they’ll be able to meet security requirements. And that once in the cloud, market dynamics will help them drive down costs.

“The reality is, our data-center-centric model of computing in the federal government no longer works,” says Chad Sheridan, CIO at the Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency. “The evidence is that there is no way we can run a federal data center at the moderate level or below better than what industry can do for us. We don’t have the resources, we don’t have the energy and we are going to be mired with this millstone around our neck of modernization for ever and ever.”

Budget pressure, demand for modernization and concern about security all combine as a forcing function that should be pushing most agencies rapidly toward broad cloud adoption.

Joe Paiva, CIO at the International Trade Administration (ITA), agrees. He used an expiring lease as leverage to force his agency into the cloud soon after he joined ITA three years ago. Time and again the lease was presented to him for a signature and time and again, he says, he tore it up and threw it away.

Finally, with the clock ticking on his data center, Paiva’s staff had to perform a massive “lift and shift” operation to keep services running. Systems were moved to the Amazon cloud.  Not a pretty transition, he admits, but good enough to make the move without incident.

“Sometimes lift and shift actually makes sense,” Paiva told federal IT specialists at the Advanced Technology Academic Research Center’s (ATARC) Cloud and Data Center Summit. “Lift and shift actually gets you there, and for me that was the key – we had to get there.”

At first, he said, “we were no worse off or no better off.” With systems and processes that hadn’t been designed for cloud, however, costs were high. “But then we started doing the rationalization and we dropped our bill 40 percent. We were able to rationalize the way we used the service, we were able to start using more reserve things instead of ad hoc.”

That rationalization included cutting out software and services licenses that duplicated other enterprise solutions. Microsoft Office 365, for example, provided every user with a OneDrive account in the cloud. By getting users to save their work there, meant his team no longer had to support local storage and backup, and the move to shared virtual drives instead of local ones improved worker productivity.

With 226 offices around the world, offloading all that backup was significant. To date, all but a few remote locations have made the switch. Among the surprise benefits: happier users. Once they saw how much easier things were with shared drives that were accessible from anywhere, he says, “they didn’t even care how much money we were saving or how much more secure they were – they cared about how much more functional they suddenly became.”

Likewise, Office 365 provided Skype for Business – meaning the agency could eliminate expensive stand-alone conferencing services – another benefit providing additional savings.

Cost savings matter. Operating in the cloud, ITA’s annual IT costs per user are about $15,000 – less than half the average for the Commerce Department as a whole ($38,000/user/year), or the federal government writ large ($39,000/user/year), he said.

“Those are crazy high numbers,” Paiva says. “That is why I believe we all have to go to the cloud.”

In addition to Office 365, ITA uses Amazon Web Services (AWS) for infrastructure and Salesforce to manage the businesses it supports, along with several other cloud services.

“Government IT spending is out of freaking control,” Paiva says, noting that budget cuts provide incentive for driving change that might not come otherwise. “No one will make the big decisions if they’re not forced to make them.”

Architecture and Planning
If getting to the cloud is now a common objective, figuring out how best to make the move is unique to every user.

“When most organizations consider a move to the cloud, they focus on the ‘front-end’ of the cloud experience – whether or not they should move to the cloud, and if so, how will they get there,” says Srini Singaraju, chief cloud architect at General Dynamics Information Technology, a systems integrator. “However, organizations commonly don’t give as much thought to the ‘back-end’ of their cloud journey: the new operational dynamics that need to be considered in a cloud environment or how operations can be optimized for the cloud, or what cloud capabilities they can leverage once they are there.”

Rather than lift and shift and then start looking for savings, Singaraju advocates planning carefully what to move and what to leave behind. Designing systems and processes to take advantage of its speed and avoiding some of the potential pitfalls not only makes things go more smoothly, it saves money over time.

“Sometimes it just makes more sense to retire and replace an application instead of trying to lift and shift,” Singaraju says. “How long can government maintain and support legacy applications that can pose security and functionality related challenges?”

The challenge is getting there. The number of cloud providers that have won provisional authority to operate under the 5-year-old Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) is still relatively small: just 86 with another 75 still in the pipeline. FedRAMP’s efforts to speed up the process are supposed to cut the time it takes to earn a provisional authority to operate (P-ATO) from as much as two years to as little as four months. But so far only three cloud providers have managed to get a product through FedRAMP Accelerated – the new, faster process, according to FedRAMP Director Matt Goodrich. Three more are in the pipeline with a few others lined up behind those, he said.

Once an agency or the FedRAMP Joint Authorization Board has authorized a cloud solution, other agencies can leverage their work with relatively little effort. But even then, moving an application from its current environment is an engineering challenge. Determining how to manage workflow and the infrastructure needed to make a massive move to the cloud work is complicated.

At ITA, for example, Paiva determined that cloud providers like AWS, Microsoft Office 365 and Salesforce had sufficient security controls in place that they could be treated as a part of his internal network. That meant user traffic could be routed directly to them, rather than through his agency’s Trusted Internet Connection (TIC). That provided a huge infrastructure savings because he didn’t have to widen that TIC gateway to accommodate all that routine work traffic, all of which in the past would have stayed inside his agency’s network.

Rather than a conventional “castle-and-moat” architecture, Paiva said he had to interpret the mandate to use the TIC “in a way that made sense for a borderless network.”

“I am not violating the mandate,” he said. “All my traffic that goes to the wild goes through the TIC. I want to be very clear about that. If you want to go to www-dot-name-my-whatever-dot-com, you’re going through the TIC. Office 365? Salesforce? Service Now? Those FedRAMP-approved, fully ATO’d applications that I run in my environment? They’re not external. My Amazon cloud is not external. It is my data center. It is my network. I am fulfilling the intent and letter of the mandate – it’s just that the definition of what is my network has changed.”

Todd Gagorik, senior manager for federal services at AWS, said this approach is starting to take root across the federal government. “People are beginning to understand this clear reality: If FedRAMP has any teeth, if any of this has any meaning, then let’s embrace it and actually use it as it’s intended to be used most efficiently and most securely. If you extend your data center into AWS or Azure, those cloud environments already have these certifications. They’re no different than your data center in terms of the certifications that they run under. What’s important is to separate that traffic from the wild.”

ATARC has organized a working group of government technology leaders to study the network boundary issue and recommend possible changes to the policy, said Tom Suder, ATARC president. “When we started the TIC, that was really kind of pre-cloud, or at least the early stages of cloud,” he said. “It was before FedRAMP. So like any policy, we need to look at that again.” Acting Federal CIO Margie Graves is a reasonable player, he said, and will be open to changes that makes sense, given how much has changed since then.

Indeed, the whole concept of a network’s perimeter has been changed by the introduction of cloud services, Office of Management and Budget’s Grant Schneider, the acting federal chief information security officer (CISO), told GovTechWorks earlier this year.

Limiting what needs to go through the TIC and what does not could have significant implications for cost savings, Paiva said. “It’s not chump change,” he said. “That little architectural detail right there could be billions across the government that could be avoided.”

But changing the network perimeter isn’t trivial. “Agency CIOs and CISOs must take into account the risks and sensitivities of their particular environment and then ensure their security architecture addresses all of those risks,” says GDIT’s Singaraju. “A FedRAMP-certified cloud is a part of the solution, but it’s only that – a part of the solution. You still need to have a complete security architecture built around it. You can’t just go to a cloud service provider without thinking all that through first.”

Sheridan and others involved in the nascent Cloud Center of Excellence sees the continued drive to the cloud as inevitable. “The world has changed,” he says. “It’s been 11 years since these things first appeared on the landscape. We are in exponential growth of technology, and if we hang on to our old ideas we will not continue. We will fail.”

His ad-hoc, unfunded group includes some 130 federal employees from 48 agencies and sub-agencies that operate independent of vendors, think tanks, lobbyists or others with a political or financial interest in the group’s output. “We are a group of people who are struggling to drive our mission forward and coming together to share ideas and experience to solve our common problems and help others to adopt the cloud,” Sheridan says. “It’s about changing the culture.”

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