USCIS has entered the next phase of its IT modernization journey

Federal technology experts say no matter where agencies are in their cloud journey, ensuring employees have the best skillsets to manage and measure the impact ...

For the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, moving to the cloud is yesterday’s news.

The Department of Homeland Security component is ready for the next big step in its cloud journey.

Steven Grunch, the chief of enterprise cloud services at USCIS, said at a recent panel sponsored by ATARC that because the agency has been in the cloud since 2014, they are now focused on optimizing those services and doing more to control their costs.

“Getting to the cloud is about managing the lifecycle of the applications. Once they get there, there is not a ‘move it to the cloud and then you’re finished;’ it is an ongoing lifecycle process to manage those workloads,” Grunch said during the panel, an excerpt of which was played on Ask the CIO. “So under the optimization banner, we have taken workloads or taken systems that were moved over to handle hardware, maintenance agreements, renewals and things like that from the data center, and now we are beginning to take them and move them either to a container workload or optimize them to be more cloud native. That’s part of the lifecycle management and it is a continual process.”

The other piece to lifecycle management is controlling costs. Grunch said once an agency puts a workload in the cloud, managing the financial aspects also is an ongoing process.

“We are taking on different projects where we’re looking at different aspects of how we spend money, how we save money and then using different techniques to control our costs, in how either the system is behaving or how it’s performing to make sure that we have stability across our, our financial landscape,” he said.

Many times monitoring and controlling costs means using the Technology Business Management framework or an emerging concept called FinOps, a cloud financial management discipline and practice.

USCIS still is early in its adoption of these approaches, Grunch said.

“We did use FinOps products to monitor how much we were spending in our cloud accounts. However, these tools not only provide you information about how much you’re spending, but it also gives you recommendations about how to control cost,” he said. “There are other tools that are provided by the cloud service providers that have you analyze how well architected your systems are, how you are doing certain business processes or governance. We’re taking those recommendations into account as we look at different systems and our monitoring of different systems.”

Grunch added that as USCIS also starts using containers and related services, those providers have tools on their platforms to help manage costs as well.

Managing data in the cloud

Controlling costs and managing workloads is a significant focus for the Justice Department’s U.S. National Central Bureau of INTERPOL, as it is a data hub for law enforcement agencies across the country.

Heather Kowalski, the chief information officer of the U.S. National Central Bureau of INTERPOL, said managing data that now includes video data, multimedia combination packages and much more and larger files becomes more critical as it puts a “terrible weight on us to try and really make this work in terms of where we put this data and respect whoever owns the data.”

She said moving to the cloud remains more about educating NCB leadership as it does about managing the technology itself.

“You just don’t take what you have, pick it up and dump it in the cloud. You need to be able to set that expectation with your leadership so that they understand there’s work to be done. If you don’t do it correctly up front, you’re potentially not just perpetuating problems, you’re creating new ones that are just going to make it that much more complicated to clean it up,” Kowalski said. “The other thing is you want to avoid the boss saying, ‘we went to the cloud and the job is done.’ If we’re going to take everything push it over here, we all need to be ready for the work that comes after it. A very difficult conversation sometimes because you are talking to people whose sole knowledge of cloud was a single article in maybe a business journal, and you’re trying to set expectations.”

Kowalski said the other piece to the education is moving in small chunks and correcting — and not repeating — mistakes as they happen.

She said by adopting a cycle of continuous improvement, fixing your data and systems as you go along, agencies will find it’s easier to explain why using cloud services is valuable to any one mission.

“We’re investing in some more training. We’re looking for specific skill sets. We’re about to look at what the next phase is, without giving too many secrets about what my current state of technology is,” Kowalski said. “I don’t have the funds to go out and buy brand new hardware to support my on-premise environment. It’s worth the effort to go into the cloud to take advantage of that space. But we’re in that convincing everyone that this is the proper approach.”

Training the workforce

Michael Cassidy, chief technology officer of the U.S. Trustees Program in the Department of Justice, said he too is ensuring his staff has the right skillsets to jump deeper into the cloud.

Despite having used cloud services since 2018, it’s always a challenge to keep the workforce trained on the latest and greatest technologies.

“If you don’t have the right skillset and the right mindset, the ability to fail fast, that agile mindset, you’re going to struggle to get the cloud. I think that’s the foundational item that a lot of people miss and struggled to get the cloud because they don’t have agile mindset or the right people in the bus,” Cassidy said. “The other thing is having that continual training from brown bag sessions once a month to meeting with the vendor on a regular basis is critical because the cloud is constantly changing. Those are two critical elements that I think are important to get to the cloud migration faster and more efficient.”

Cassidy said then questions around cloud governance, billing, automation, cost management and other technical things can be addressed.

Unlike the two Justice organizations, the Agriculture Department’s CIO shop completed that need to convince leadership about the benefits of cloud services years ago. It has closed data centers, moved dozens of applications to the cloud over the last few years and is trying to consolidate 17 different networks.

Casey Cook, the cloud architecture branch chief for Enterprise Applications Services at USDA, said over the last four years, the agency has increased its cloud usage by about 25% to 30% annually.

“Our continued growth has really been a lot of experimentation and testing out where we’re working with some large programs that have been in like a managed space. They’re moving into more of a hyperscaler approach to enable them to modernize,” Cook said. “Then that really is going to allow them to see growth through the cost savings they’ve had through their other programs and enables them to further experiment and optimize their delivery.”


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