The time, money and resources invested by federal agencies in consolidating government data centers have created virtual environments that prepare them for the next steps in fully modernizing their information infrastructures.
IT modernization is a journey, said Mike Wilkerson, senior director for federal end-user computing at VMware. Resources can reside in commercial, private or community cloud environments. Selecting the right environment for each application and the right schedule for moving them can be complicated. “We’re here to work with our customers to help them get through their journey,” Wilkerson said. “It’s not one-size fits all. I think the hybrid environment is going to be the predominate architecture in the federal space. You’re in a good place now, because you’re able to pick and choose.”
The federal government kicked off data center consolidation in 2010 as the first step in a broader effort to modernize and optimize federal IT. The focus today is on provisioned services, cloud computing, and interagency shared services.
“We are making progress,” said Tim Thorpe, director of the enterprise hosting division in the EPA’s office of IT operations. EPA has closed 17 of 34 non-tier data centers. At USDA, “we’ve closed a significant number of data centers,” said Doug Nash, CIO of the Agriculture Marketing Service. USDA’s strategy is to move to cloud services, maintaining one department-wide enterprise data center in Kansas City and a backup in St. Louis. The marketing service plans to replace two more data centers with commercial cloud services.
By virtualizing core computing capabilities, agencies have prepared themselves for the next step, virtualizing applications with Software as a Service (SaaS), which Wilkerson called “probably the most important piece” in modernization.
“When you collapse thousands upon thousands of physical assets into hundreds, if not tens, it’s a simple math equation” to see the return on investment. But there are challenges in moving to SaaS. Agencies and the users of applications must adjust to a subscription payment model. This pay-for-what-you use model eliminates upfront capital expenses but might not fit in well with agency missions and budgeting.
“When you have a subscription service, you have to watch utilization,” said Thorpe. “When you get to the end of the year, if you’ve burned down your budget you’re going to find yourself in trouble.”
Restricting usage is not an option, because most applications ultimately contribute to the mission, said Air Force CIO Frank Konieczny.
Vendors can help avoid problems with transparency and flexible usage plans, Wilkerson said. But agencies must set clear expectations and define benefits and tradeoffs for all stakeholders.
Agencies must determine what applications best lend themselves to virtualization, and prioritize apps for migration. The Air Force has 2,000 applications to migrate, Konieczny said. Each base has its own data center, and mission critical apps will probably remain on the base in a private cloud. Enterprise applications will be candidates for commercial cloud services. Agency officials agree that administrative applications are more likely to move to commercial clouds, while core mission apps might remain in some on-premises platform.
Contractual obligations must also be considered in migrating to SaaS. It does not make sense to virtualize an application in the middle of a contract. But as new applications are developed, agency policy calls for developing them for the cloud if possible, officials said.
And the benefits
A hybrid cloud architecture that lets agencies choose among public, private or community platforms gives agencies enormous flexibility in charting their course to modernization, Wilkerson said. “Without having to manage the plumbing” of their own data centers, “agencies can free IT to run at the speed of business.”
Software as a Service can be a force multiplier, Konieczny said. “There is a point where we want to be able to buy everything,” he said. “We want to get out of the business of making apps. We want to have manpower dedicated to the mission.”
Using shared services, cloud services and commercial applications when possible also frees the IT workforce to focus on mission rather than on administrative tasks. Training can be directed to critical needs rather than on keeping up with tech refresh cycles.
“The cloud is here, it is happening, and we’re going to have to find the right fit in using it,” Thorpe said.
Agencies are well along on their journey, Wilkerson said. “You’re able to pick and choose what you can leverage from the shared platform environment and what you can do on-premises, and there are tools to help you plan it. Government is in a good position to break through and lead in the modernization effort.”