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How cloud brings agility to public sector IT

Kenny MacIver – September 2015

Dr David Bray, CIO of the US’s Federal Communications Commission, on the challenges of taking public sector IT into the cloud.

Cloud is part of a journey to agile, resilient and less complex IT. But, says David Bray, one of the US’s leading government CIOs, it’s a journey that is only at its start.

Like an increasing number of organizations, the US’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has embraced cloud in a big way in the last 18 months — and for good reason. “During the 1990s and early 2000s, we made a lot of investment in client/server. That was good for that period, however, the challenge is that client/server has now become very expensive to maintain.” It also encouraged ‘applications sprawl,’ as well as increasingly outdated systems that resulted in dissatisfaction with the quality of IT delivery. When Bray arrived at the FCC two years ago, the approximately 1,750-person agency had a vast portfolio of 207 different systems and, perhaps reflecting that costly line-up, had gone through nine CIOs in the space of just eight years.

“Over a period of two decades, whenever there was a new effort called for, they actually just launched a new IT system. That probably made sense at the time but over the years you just accumulate all these different legacy investments, all these ageing, on-premise servers.”

The upshot, he outlines, of aging, on-premise systems is a limiting of future innovation as an ever-increasing proportion of the IT budget is spent on maintaining systems rather than “doing new things in a more cost- and time-effective manner that the public wants.”

he bold solution has been a wholesale and rapid shift to cloud. “So wanting to get out of this sort of trap of maintaining legacy, one of the things we’ve been doing at the FCC is — like at other public sector organizations — to move to the cloud as quickly as we can.

By the end of September 2015, the FCC will have all of its systems in the cloud or with a commercially managed service provider, he highlights. Astonishingly for a government organization, at that point, the agency will then not have a single server on-site.

Cloud first

One example of a service that has gone through this evolution is the FCC’s consumer helpdesk. In assessing how to modernize its 15-year-old application, the initial recommendation was more “big iron,” says Bray, meaning buying and maintaining servers on site. “The gold standard at the time was for you to do it ‘on-prem,’ which would mean the FCC would continue to be in the business of maintaining expensive software and servers.”

he on-prem configuration was quoted by the private sector as costing between $3.2 million or more and taking about a year and a half or two years to build. “We wanted to be more cost effective so we actually looked at software-as-a-service and got it done at one-sixth the price and in at least half the time — in less than six months for only $450,000.”

For the FCC, this will be the default model going forward, Bray says. “In order to serve the public better, we will now always look at software-as-a-service or platform-as-a-service first, as opposed to trying to do it on-premise.”

“To minimize the amount of custom code we maintain, we’ve adopted an ‘adapt open source’ first model.”

But in getting there, Bray has had to overcome some tough barriers — and not necessarily technical ones. “The key challenges with moving wholesale to the cloud are 80% people and culture and 20% technology. A lot of people have concerns about where their data is going to be located; a lot of people have concerns about [losing the ability to have] the custom processes built into the systems they had on-premise. You really have to tease out the processes that are absolutely essential, that are unique, and [separate those from] things that are actually commodity-based.”

With that commodity focus in mind, the FCC has also adopted a model of ‘adapt open source’ first, buy off-the-shelf second, and then only if the functionality is not available elsewhere does it actually write custom code. “So we’re trying to get out of the really expensive business of maintaining code,” says Bray.

The challenge, however, is institutional resistance — and not just from its own employees. “The average person in the FCC has been there for 15 and a half years; the average contractor’s been there 18 years, and these are contractors that have [naturally] built close working relationships with the government professionals. So when I show up and say we’re going to move out of this model of maintaining expensive hardware and software onsite and go instead to the cloud, I’m also disrupting friendships.”

o successfully lead transformational change, Bray advises, it is important to recognize in moving to the cloud IT leaders need to manage the friction that the change will cause within the organization. This may require leaders to be bold and take on some risk, nevertheless, the benefits of making that progression are clear, he says: “We become faster, more nimble and more resilient.”

First published
September 2015
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About: Dr David Bray
A leading figure in US crisis response and intelligence R&D, Bray is the CIO of the Federal Communications Commission and former IT chief of the US Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program. He has also served in Afghanistan as a senior strategic adviser on humanitarian and defense issues.

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