SBA CIO Maria Roat is closing in on her goal of a cloud-only agency.

Nov 07 2019

SBA, CBP, USTDA Turn to the Cloud to Keep Work Flowing

Agencies use cloud migration to prevent interruptions in workflow for their employees and customers.

When Maria Roat became CIO of the Small Business Administration in late 2016 — filling a job that had been empty for a year — she found out just how full her hands would be.

“The primary data center was failing,” she recalls. “The air handlers were going out, which was just a symptom of bigger problems.

“For example, when I asked what was in my data center, I got four different lists from my team, and none of them matched. We had equipment outages because we had old equipment, too much equipment, and no one knew what was in there.”

She and her team needed an immediate plan to keep the agency up and running for the more than 30 million small businesses that needed their services. A move to the cloud was the agency’s best bet to improve uptime and access to internal and public-facing applications.

SBA was an early cloud adopter, but today most agencies are on a similar path. Spurred by the federal government’s first cloud policy update in seven years — the 2018 Cloud Smart policy — agencies are evaluating their IT infrastructure and deciding that cloud isn’t just cheaper and easier, it’s also better.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Follow the 5 R’s of rationalization for an effective cloud migration.

SBA Completes an IT Inventory and Shifts to the Cloud

While the federal government may be late following in the footsteps of traditional enterprise organizations, says John Dinsdale, chief analyst and research director with Synergy Research Group, agencies may see even more benefits than their private sector brethren.

“Federal agencies are no different from large enterprises. They just tend to be bigger, have more sprawling organizations and are less coordinated when it comes to IT,” he says. “So all of the usual cloud benefits are at play, but in addition, even more efficiencies can be targeted.”

The SBA started from scratch, cataloging, rationalizing, updating and patching everything in the dying center. It took a few months, Roat says, before they had a solid handle on what the data center contained, what the agency owned and what data belonged in the cloud. Only when inventory was ­complete did they start the migration.

Small Business Administration CIO Maria Roat
Once we started implementing and moving things to the cloud and completed a network upgrade, there was a lot more stability.”

Maria Roat Small Business Administration CIO

“Initially, we went with Platform and Infrastructure as a Service, because I had a data center here that I really needed to get out of,” says Roat. The agency has since embraced Software as a Service as well, bringing it closer to cloud-only.

The first cloud migration simply moved on-premises applications to their online counterparts. For example, the agency had quite a few Microsoft SharePoint servers, so they transitioned data to SharePoint Online. They also tapped Microsoft Azure and Microsoft Office 365 as well as Box and other cloud-based apps.

Right away, SBA saw more stability in the primary data center for those applications that remained there — and once they got rid of old equipment, migrated applications and turned servers off, the air handlers recovered as well. 

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Discover why feds’ cloud benefits are undercut by data fragmentation.

CBP Gets More Stability with the Cloud 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection began its trip to the cloud to keep travelers’ journeys uninterrupted by technology downtime.

CBP’s Trusted Traveler programs are all accessible through a customer-facing application on its website. Travelers use the app to apply for PreCheck, Global Entry and other programs that ease the way through boarding and customs.

Trusted Traveler was launched in the cloud in October 2017 with a process that differed from previous launches of on-premises applications, says Tom Mills, chief systems engineer in CBP’s Office of Information and Technology.

In the past, making even a single change to an on-premises application could mean a site outage between one and six hours long. That doesn’t apply to cloud-hosted apps, he says. The agency uses a virtualized compute environment, including Microsoft Azure and IBM, that gives it more flexibility.

“We were never down when we launched Trusted Traveler,” he says. “When Trusted Traveler was first rolled out, we were making many changes a day. We were not able to do that in our old traditional data center.”

Having IT infrastructure in the cloud also helps prevent unplanned outages; building in protection is simpler than having to add it after the fact.

$291 million

The amount saved since 2015 by 13 agencies that use cloud services

Source: Government Accountability Office, “Agencies Have Increased Usage and Realized Benefits, but Cost and Savings Data Need to Be Better Tracked,” April 4, 2019

“What we have out of the box in cloud is a resiliency that we didn’t have in our traditional data center,” Mills says. “For disaster recovery, the resilience that used to come from standing up a separate data center and buying a bunch of capitalized expenses of redundant equipment — all of that is eliminated with cloud.”

Cloud infrastructure is robust and extensible, making it an ideal environment to host mission-critical applications, says Kris Rowley, chief data officer at the General Services Administration.

“Innovation is also a key driver. The cloud allows you to provision up or down as needed, and organizations can quickly spin up an environment to test new services or applications, and bring them down just as quickly,” Rowley says. 

Mills says that his agency now has access to the latest technology all the time — something that would have been tough not just from a cost perspective but also a functionality perspective.

“In the past, if we made an upgrade to our data center and our infrastructure wasn’t able to support the new technology, we would have to buy new infrastructure, have to cable it, install it, all that good stuff. In cloud, we’re able to use new technology quickly,” he says.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Follow these tips to protect your data in the cloud. 

USTDA Gives Users More Flexibility via Cloud Tools 

The U.S. Trade and Development Agency accelerated its move to a cloud solution as the 15-year lease on its office was ending. The pending relocation presented a perfect opportunity for technological migration as well, explains Benjamin Bergersen, the agency’s first full-time CIO.

USTDA moved to government-based, shared-service cloud providers in phases, swapping on-premises financial and time-card programs for cloud-based applications such as Office 365 several years ago, then moving email and personal network drives in late 2017 and early 2018.

The agency also replaced its conference room scheduling legacy application with Skype for Business, which integrates with the existing cloud email and calendaring system and also provides video teleconferencing that links its local, remote and traveling personnel.

It also moved its IT continuity of operations plan documents to the cloud for high availability. The cloud platform provides resiliency and access to these documents during a potential COOP event.

“We started out to save money — and we have seen a hard-dollar savings of a few million — but the additional benefit is that now mobile mission operators are telling us that they can easily get their work done from anywhere in the world,” says Bergersen.

At SBA, Roat says she’s close to achieving her goal of shutting down her data center by Dec. 31. In May, the agency shut down 28 racks. All the user data in shared files is moving to the Microsoft Azure cloud; public-facing apps have moved to other solutions.

The agency is installing software-defined WAN, which will enable faster access to the data and cloud-based resources. A move to Skype for Business meant SBA could decommission its conference bridge and save tens of thousands of dollars each month, she says.

“Their experience before I got here was outages — servers and email went down all the time. The network was slow, they had all kinds of problems,” Roat says. “Once we started implementing and moving things to the cloud, there was a lot more stability.”

Photography by Jonathan Timmes

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