Fed Tech Leaders Should Take Calculated Risks Moving to the Cloud

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The question of the best way for transitioning to cloud infrastructures is a big one for Federal agencies.

One approach to solve this issue is a slow, measured migration. Another approach is a more dramatic transformation in a shorter period that might be painful, but allows agencies to reap the benefits of cloud migration much sooner. The best approach for agencies to successfully transition depends on the agency itself, its mission, and what officials are looking to achieve.

Consider the case of the Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration (ITA), which works to improve the global business environment and helps U.S. organizations compete at home and abroad. The move to the cloud started out smoothly with a transition to Microsoft Office 365, but a change in the chief information officer position led to a bolder approach. ITA technology managers then embarked upon a plan to rapidly migrate legacy applications wholesale to the cloud as well as virtual print servers, and at the same time create a global borderless network.

These moves led to a challenging few months where availability suffered, throughput issues– bandwidth, latency, routing–abounded, emergency costs increased, and client dissatisfaction grew, according to Andres Mendes, the ITA’s current CIO, who noted that this situation occurred before he took the helm.

The mistakes ITA officials made were classic ones that lead to failure, including underestimating the operating complexity, ignoring non-documented dependencies and links, misunderstanding bandwidth latency issues, and trusting their information technology portfolios to single points of failure, Mendes said during a recent Fed Insider webinar, Driving Digital Transformation Through Data Center Optimization.

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It took a herculean effort by staff and contractors working tirelessly to correct the situation. But now ITA is 100 percent in the cloud on Amazon Web Services cloud platform, and increasingly with Microsoft Azure. At the same time the agency has standardized on Microsoft Office 365, Salesforce, and Drupal software-as-a-service platforms.

Although ITA went through a substantial amount of pain and loss of trust with clients, “the reality on the other side of the equation is we moved very quickly to the cloud and were able to reap massive results from a financial standpoint at a much earlier stage,” Mendes said. “Had we gone through a much more thoughtful, more reasoned, more careful process, we would probably have taken three or five years down the road to get to where we are today. But we probably would have avoided a lot of issues that we ran into.”

Mendes, who formerly was CIO and Chief Technology Officer with the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (now the U.S. Agency for Global Media), recommends four steps for cloud migration: consolidate, virtualize, co-locate, and move to the cloud. In many cases, an agency can move from step one, consolidation, to the cloud if tech managers consolidate multiple email servers into a single cloud email platform, such as Google or Office 365.

If an organization has gone through a substantial amount of virtualization, then with modern tools such from VMware and Microsoft, the migration of virtualized machines across data centers is relatively simple, Mendes noted. “If one of the data centers is a cloud-based infrastructure-as-a-service provider, that also applies,” he said.

Ultimately, the move to the cloud requires some degree of risk-taking, Mendes noted.

The biggest risk IT leaders have in today’s environment is maintaining the status quo. “Not moving is riskier than moving and taking some calculated risk. The CIO, deputy CIO, and technical leadership need to be the cloud advocates that propel this forward–even though they might perceive there is some personal risk associated with the transition,” Mendes explained.

“Calculated risk is what makes leaders, leaders. Absence of taking risk is what makes managers, managers,” he said.

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