Las Vegas — From the constant talk in Washington of developing a federal fund to upgrade technology, one might think that cost is the major roadblock facing agencies who are trying to migrate to the cloud.
But industry leaders told FedScoop at the Amazon Web Services re: Invent conference that the real barriers are a lack of leadership and a workforce skills gap on buying and using cloud. These companies say they are hearing questions from agencies about where to even start, or on the logistics behind making the move.
Teresa Carlson, vice president of Worldwide Public Sector at Amazon Web Services, told FedScoop at this year’s conference that “in order to really utilize the cloud properly [the federal IT workers] need training and education.”
Carlson did say, though, that the most recent legislation focused on upgrading legacy systems, the Modernizing Government Technology Act, was a good step toward prioritizing modernization.
“I love that act because it showcased that Congress and the Executive Branch, at the agency level understands that they have to modernize,” she said. “And they can’t spend 90 percent of their budget on [operations and maintenance], I mean it’s just maintaining systems, you just cannot do that, that is not the way IT operates and it’s not the way the individuals out there trying to attack government operate.”
The bill has come to a standstill in the Senate after a Congressional Budget Office estimate pegged its implementation cost in the billions.
But as Barry Crist, CEO of server automation software company Chef put it to FedScoop, funding modernization is great, but “the other half of that puzzle is really changing the culture of that organization.”
“When we see organizations, meaning government agencies, go through change that has positive outcomes it’s partly a technology issue, but it’s also an enormous amount a cultural issue, and really changing the way they work,” Crist said.
Lawrence Guillory, CEO of cloud migration company Racemi, said to FedScoop the problem is not cost, but getting the commitment from leadership. He said he’s seeing good projects “just die from no one showing up.”
“There are people in these projects that want it to happen but those that can make it happen — across the board it’s not happening,” he said. “There’s no leadership. The decision-makers are not in the room and there’s nobody leading it, saying: ‘We’re going to the cloud.’”
Technical questions, logistical issues linger
One way to enable agencies to move to the cloud would be modernizing acquisition, Carlson said. Cloud solutions are meant to be billed like a utility. But federal contracting models do not make that easy, and both AWS and the contracting community have had to adjust to find a path forward for agencies.
“Modernize the [Federal Acquisition Regulation], and make sure the acquisition officials are trained in how to procure cloud-based IT systems because they’re still pretty much trained on how do you procure a carrier, how do you procure a weapons system of some type,” she said. “The modern way of procuring IT has really changed and they need to be trained in that.”
CEO Ronald Bianchini of Avere Systems, a hybrid cloud enablement solutions provider, told FedScoop cloud adoption is still slow “because there’s a lot of anxiety around it.”
Some of that anxiety, surely, comes from agencies getting rid of their tangible assets they can control: their data centers.
He said agency folks still have questions such as: “How do I know I get everything I need? Are all the services going to be the same? How are my people going to get access to it?”
Rebecca Thompson, vice president of marketing for Avere Systems told FedScoop that after sending out a news release on the company’s work with NASA, their federal team was “besieged” with questions from other agencies on just how NASA doing it.
She said she doesn’t think cost is the issue “at all.”
“It’s expertise,” she said. “I think they don’t know where to start.”
A lot of the questions from agencies are also technical — on how licensing might be different, for example, Bianchini said.
Ananda Rajagopal, vice president of products at Gigamon, said questions about data governance also come into play.
“I’ve rarely heard about the cost aspect of moving to the cloud being a barrier,” he said to FedScoop. “Usually it’s about skill-set, it’s about the logistics aspect of it.”
He added: “There are also justifiably some questions about data governance, for example, and making sure that those compliance aspects are correctly accounted for … it’s rarely cost. Cost may become a factor if there’s a lot of data moving back and forth or if it’s a sustained very high use. But again that is probably a third or fourth level discussion that rarely comes up.”
‘We’re here to support them’
But in spite of the challenges, Carlson said she’s seeing “a continual progression of more and more and more workloads,” at all levels of classification.
“But then you still have some that are on their early journey to the adoption of cloud,” she said. “We’d love to see them move faster, and we’re here to support them for that, but we also know some are just going to move a little bit more slowly than others.”
Rajagopal of Gigamon said he feels like agencies are still in the early stages of making the move, but discussions with agencies about the cloud have picked up for him in the past year.
“I also think Gov Cloud also has matured quite significantly compared to where it was maybe 18 months back or 24 months back,” he said. “So I think that’s clearly making many agencies take notice. Clearly AWS has put a lot of effort into the Gov Cloud program as well, and I think that has helped a lot.”
NASA’s Web and Cloud Services Manager Ian Sturken told FedScoop there’s been more and more interest within NASA at least, in moving to the cloud.
“There’s great interest just welling up within NASA for using the cloud,” he said.
The cloud contract under which Sturken operates, called WESTPrime, with contractor InfoZen, started four years ago, he said. At the beginning of that Sturken said they focused on migrating a proprietary content management system into Drupal on Amazon, along with 65 applications in 13 weeks.
“Unfortunately a lot of that was forklift-type stuff,” he said. “But at least the newer stuff we’ve been building specifically in Amazon. And that has allowed us to cut costs, probably 20-to-30 percent, and increase level of usability and functionality, including supporting mobile devices and whatnot that we didn’t have in the old proprietary content management system.”
Bianchini of Avere Systems said interest in moving to the cloud has definitely “ramped up.”
“Our agencies are telling us they’re getting a lot of push to get into the cloud,” he said. “That’s clearly the push.”
Thompson, also of Avere Systems, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of its clients, is looking at moving to the cloud.
“Life-sciences companies in general tend to be good, early, big users of cloud technology,” she said. “And I think this will be the year you’ll see the CDC follow them.”
The cloud is a great collaboration platform for research scientists, she said.
“And it’s a great repository to not only store the massive amounts of data that the research produces, but to run big data analytics compute type applications,” she said.
Crist of Chef also said that progress is being made on the “people” front.
“My own experience historically was agencies were very closed in sharing information outside their own agency. And I’m starting to see community building, which I think mimics some of the work we’ve done around open source community building,” he said. “There’s starting to be communities across government agencies and they’re sharing best practices, and they’re talking about what they’re doing for security, they’re trying to drive high velocity in innovation. And that’s a big departure, in my opinion, over the last two years.”
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