For the Homeland Security Department’s Customs and Border Protection component, cloud computing offers a way out of its technology past.
CBP is using cloud services not just to save money or reduce the hassles of managing technology, but more importantly, as the best and most efficient way to modernize its aging IT infrastructure.
“We’ve spent quite a bit of the past 10 years focusing in on delivering more and more mission capability. And now we are at a point, and I’ve seen this happen more and more, where IT organizations are starting to focus internally and look at how to improve performance and lower their cost of operations,” said Charlie Armstrong, CBP’s assistant commissioner for the Office of Information and Technology and chief information officer. “We’ve struck out in a couple of areas. One is we are working to modernize our infrastructure. We have a number of infrastructure components at the server level, the switch level and the router level that were well beyond their end of life, some of them beyond 10 years old.”
Armstrong said CBP bought some of the newest hardware before the end of fiscal 2012, and will begin implementing the technology in 2013.
“It’s going to help us move more toward cloud computing, allow us collapse down the number of servers we have and move more toward more virtualization, lower our power cost and improve our performance time and availability time,” he said. “It’s going to allow us to migrate our networks to more higher-speed routers and also we are doing some circuit upgrades. We are seeing a lot more, bigger bandwidth information like video and streaming media coming across the network we didn’t see before. So that will better position us for the future, and also we will be able to enable multicast which will allow us to do a lot more of that kind of vide across the network.”
Many of these efforts come under the C3E cloud initiative. Armstrong said under this program CBP will implement a high-performance, big data environment to match up with its increasing workload.
“We do a lot of volume transactions so we moved more toward an appliance model where we are not doing as much integration with the entire stack,” he said. “It has allowed us to get environments stood up and in place much quicker. In some cases, it took us over a year to get a new environment in place. We can now roll out a new environment in about 14 days now. It also allowed us to increase our capacity by about 10 fold.”
Armstrong added as CBP used a higher-capacity network, it helped employees meet their mission better by running more queries against the agency’s databases.
He said the cloud and management of data is centered on letting CBP calculate the risk of people or cargo coming into and out of the country.
“We’ve been able to, with this environment, get out in front of some real-time threats and stop some either bad stuff or bad people coming in, or in one case stop a bad person from getting out of the country before authorities could catch up with him,” he said. “We are really looking at expanding the use of C3E, that’s our target platform. Eventually, the Automated Commercial Environment will migrate to that platform. We are trying to rationalize down to a small number of environments and the C3E environment really is our target environment for all of our applications in the future. It speeds our time to delivery up and lowers our development costs.”
Email is a go
While the move to the cloud will be a slow roll, CBP already migrated 73,000 users to the DHS email-as-a-service offering in its data centers.
Armstrong said CBP mostly completed the switch to cloud email in November and is just finishing up some of the more challenging parts of the move, such as group calendars.
One of the biggest benefits of moving email and calendar to the cloud is better governance over the tools. Armstrong said CBP employees used the email systems for long-term storage.
“We were able to have tiers of email service so everything from half a gigabyte box up to a 2-1/2 gig box to an unlimited box at different pricing. That way our customers ended up seeing what it costs per year to have a box,” he said. “Even at the high end, we end up at a little under $6 a month for a box, which we thought was pretty reasonable.”
Armstrong’s office surveyed CBP offices and let them have a certain number of boxes at each size level based on need and use.
“There are additional services and/or capacities that offices could acquire and pay for separately. It allowed us to put a cap on what the budget is within my office for email and allow offices to meter what they want more out of their email system based on their needs and usage,” he said. “It does allow them to get more value out of it based on what dollars they have to spend.”
The move to the cloud also will let CBP make better use of mobile devices.
He said officers can check passports, license plates or Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) cards more quickly as well as getting cargo released at an accelerated rate.
“We think mobility is going to help us, not just in the frontline mission areas, but also within the mission support area. We have a pilot with our Office of Administration where they’ve been able to drastically reduce their footprint in one of their offices, about cut it in half. Largely, that’s been through the use of mobility,” Armstrong said. “They are doing a lot of telework and moved away from physical phones and moved to soft phones, they are using collaboration tools that allow them to do online meetings, online chat and share documents in real time. We’ve started to see those kinds of successes and we’ll spread those out more and more across mission support.”
Federal News Radio’s Jason Miller hosted an online chat with Charlie Armstrong on Thurs. Jan. 3, 2013. View an archived copy of the discussion.
Francis Rose is the host of In Depth, which airs weekdays from 4-7 p.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, DC metro area and online everywhere. Francis has covered all three branches of the federal government as a broadcast journalist since 1998. He joined Federal News Radio in 2006, and launched In Depth in 2008 as a daily show focused on connecting federal executives to the information they need to do their jobs better.