NSF Official Emphasizes Importance of Cloud-Native Apps

Chezian Sivagnanam, chief enterprise architect at the National Science Foundation (NSF), stressed the importance of moving the Federal government to cloud-native applications, during a presentation Feb. 12 at an event organized by GovLoop and Red Hat.

The Federal government “usually has big monolithic applications,” Sivagnanam said, but the problem with those is they aren’t “agile to meet customer needs.” Focusing on cloud-native app development allows agency IT departments to break “these big monolithic applications into simple services,” he said.

One area where the government struggles is keeping up with a rapidly changing technological landscape, which ultimately changes how the government must function, he said.

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“The world is very different today from how the government acted a decade ago,” Sivagnanam said. “Today, the government has a lot of digital services that are critical to citizens,” he said, citing GPS and weather data as two services NSF is tasked with managing. “[Citizens] are depending on [these digital services],” he said.

Harkening back to his earlier comments, Sivagnanam explained that “traditionally the government systems are monolithic in nature and if you are expecting changes to happen in weeks, it’s going to be challenging.” But with cloud-native app development, changes come faster. This is important because the government’s customers – citizens – are “highly demanding and expect [services] to be highly reliable.”

Barriers to moving to cloud-native app development often are cultural, Sivagnanam said. He added that customers and developers need to be on the same page when it comes to rapidly adapting to change and deploying new tech.

On the cybersecurity front, he said IT teams typically look at “how to make the existing [cyber] tools work with the new technology.” But Sivagnanam said “it doesn’t work that way,” and explained that in a cloud-native environment cybersecurity needs to be more baked in, not bolted on.

“You need to be delivering change to the end-user must faster,” Sivagnanam said, and essential to that goal is team-building. Connecting the idea of building a strong team to the importance of cultural change, Sivagnanam said a shift away from institutional knowledge – which is based on the previous monolithic-style apps the government was using – is essential.

To make that shift, the government has to invest in training to move developers toward agile development. On top of that, Sivagnanam said it is essential to “break down the silos” between developers, network architects, and cybersecurity experts. These have been barriers, he said, but “we’ve found a way to break them and we are progressing towards maturity.”

Sivagnanam also provided guidance for government agencies looking to get started in cloud-native app development, with stakeholder buy-in as the first step in the transition. His team initially tapped into the goal of NSF’s CIO to deliver change at a faster pace, and was able to position moving to cloud-native app development as a way to achieve that goal. Part of stakeholder buy-in involves agency IT teams getting their customers on board.

Next, it’s time to set up the new architecture to enable cloud-native app development. He said agencies shouldn’t expect that to be a quick process – for NSF it took roughly 12-18 months. Pilot programs also are essential, Sivagnanam said. With a pilot program agencies can both test their process, and prove their success. With a successful pilot program, IT teams can easily demonstrate the return on investment to those in charge of the budget, he said.

Kate Polit
About Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.

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