Focus on cloud savings misses the point
- By Brett Swartz
Despite initiatives from the highest levels to push the migration of federal workloads to the cloud, adoption of the technology at federal agencies has lagged. "After more than eight years of sustained top-down pressure on agencies and the promise of cloud's well-understood economic benefits, we've seen only modest levels of buy-in across government, Accenture Federal Services CTO Dominic Delmolino wrote earlier this year. "Not a single agency met a governmentwide target set by the Office of Management and Budget that 15 percent of IT spending in 2016 be on cloud computing services."
That might surprise some readers. If there has been executive-level buy-in for cloud initiatives, why has adoption been so slow? The answer has much to do with the sales pitch for cloud computing, particularly the unfortunate focus on cost savings.
When FCW convened a panel of IT leaders from across the federal agencies to discuss cloud migration in August 2017, there was "overwhelming consensus" among panel participants that "the savings-driven sales pitch that has dominated the conversation since 'cloud first' became official policy misses the bigger picture, and in some ways, it is hindering the government's ability to take full advantage of cloud services," FCW Editor-in-Chief Troy K. Schneider wrote at the time.
Although the overwhelming focus on cost savings is beginning to lessen, participants on a similar panel convened by FCW in 2018 expressed similar frustrations. One attendee noted that while "program managers and 'the people who are doing the work' are focused on cloud's elasticity and agility and the mission benefits the technology can deliver ... at the end of the day, you still have the senior leaders who look over your shoulder and go, 'that's great, but how much money am I saving?'"
The truth of the matter is that, in contrast to public opinion, a cloud migration will often not end up saving money, at least in the short term. Does that make a cloud migration not worth pursuing? Far from it! It just means that the benefits are primarily a result of greater agility and capability to drive results. But what do we mean by that?
When federal agencies want to migrate workloads to the cloud, they have three options. An infrastructure-as-a-service provider, like Amazon Web Services, Google Compute Engine or Microsoft Azure, offers a "no frills" path to the cloud. Internal IT teams will continue to manage operating systems and middleware, but network and compute capacity is outsourced to the IaaS vendor. By contrast, a platform-as-a-service provider, like Heroku or Cloud Foundry, will manage runtime, middleware and operating systems, leaving only applications and data to be managed by agency IT. Finally, unlike IaaS or PaaS, a software-as-a-service vendor delivers a specific application or service, managing everything -- up to and including applications and data.
Whichever solution is chosen -- and there may be different deployments for separate use cases within the same department -- an external vendor that is compliant with the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program will allow the team in question to focus on critical tasks while the vendor handles underlying maintenance, at least at the infrastructure layer.
The advantages of such an arrangement were echoed by participants in both FCW roundtables. In 2017, an executive stated the agency was focusing spend "on the wrong things... If I own all this hardware, I'm spending my time on operational thinking, making sure that stuff is up and running." Similarly, a 2018 participant said, "We need to buy SaaS, just like the commercial industries do, [because then] we don't have platform problems. We don't have infrastructure problems. We don't have to do DevOps. Why are we doing DevOps on an HR system when we could go buy it for $30 a seat?"
Gartner Research Vice President John-David Lovelock has stated that "IT is no longer a cost center... Leading organizations, as well as those that wish to lead, are spending on IT and nurturing their IT investments as the means to grow their business." This is as true in public-sector organizations as it is in the private sector. As such, it often makes sense for federal agencies to offload routine maintenance tasks to external vendors so internal teams can focus on delivering the mission-critical applications their colleagues rely on. IT teams don't want to worry about ensuring uptime and handling server load, nor does it make sense for them to.
Artificial intelligence enthusiasts often talk about the promise of the technology to free us from the mundane. The cloud can already give public-sector IT professionals some of those same benefits, but focusing on costs doesn't do justice to one of the most momentous technological shifts of the past decade. More cloud deployments will be initiated and, more importantly, be successful, when executives at federal agencies understand that while costs may not initially decrease, agility and productivity will accelerate exponentially.
Brett Swartz is director of public sector at Liferay.