USDA leaning harder into software-as-a-service to satisfy mission needs

Gary Washington, the chief information officer at the Agriculture Department, said within its multi-cloud environment, they are constantly looking to maximize i...

The Agriculture Department’s recently released request for information for a new cloud management initiative is a clear sign of where it’s going next.

With more than 80% of its applications already in the cloud, Gary Washington, the chief information officer for USDA, said Stratus, as the program is called, will provide enterprise capabilities for the mission areas as well as improved vendor management.

USDA wrote in the April request for information that Stratus would be a “suite of departmentwide cloud basic ordering agreements (BOA) to obtain rapid access to hyperscale cloud service providers, cloud integration and development providers, and software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers/resellers. This collection of BOAs, formally known as USDA STRATUS, will provide rapid access to cloud capabilities.”

Stratus would build on the success of the Digital Infrastructure Services Center (DISC), run out of the CIO’s office, and further “reduce costs, better allocate resources and continuously improve and evolve USDA’s IT enterprise to keep pace with technology and business model advancements.”

Gary Washington is the CIO of the Agriculture Department.

Washington said it’s still too early to offer more about USDA’s long-term vision or strategy for Stratus, but it’s clear the agency’s journey to the cloud will continue to accelerate, particularly through the use of software-as-a-service.

“We will continue to be a multi-cloud environment, looking to maximize its value, improve customer experience and continue to be flexible,” Washington said on Ask the CIO. “It has to be cost effective and efficient for the mission focused applications. If you are a program owner, we have our applications in secure high value cloud platforms that enable the missions. So really, for us, it is really all about business value and what are the best options for mission delivery? We want to increasingly build capacities with data analytics, security and customer experience platforms.”

USDA has been at the forefront of using the cloud among most agencies, starting in 2010 when it moved its email off premise.

Washington said those early beginnings and understanding the lessons learned over the years has helped change the culture across the mission areas.

“As we have gone on this journey, we’ve proven the value of this move to the programs. I’ve had more enthusiasm around partnering with us to transition applications to the cloud,” he said. “We have to do our part on the back end and make sure we’re providing value to them.”

Driving priorities, decisions

That value is done through several interagency groups. Washington said USDA has an integrated product team (IPT), a USDA CIO Council and a cloud working group.

Each of these serve a different, but important purpose to drive priorities and decisions.

“The CIO Council is headed up by myself, and is inclusive of the assistant CIOs from each one of the mission areas. We have a cloud working group, which includes people from the mission areas who have volunteered to be a part of it, and that’s actually led by a member of our mission areas, but has departmental representation as well,” he said. “We take the opportunity to create IPTs to get business involvement, where it makes sense.”

Washington’s office also runs a cloud broker to help ensure the mission applications are placed in the right cloud to meet their goals.

“The cloud broker office really is our business entry into cloud services from a metrics perspective, from a cost perspective and from an options perspective,” he said. “It helps mission areas get their applications on the proper landing zones, so that we’re all on the same page in terms of not just what is going on, but how much it will cost and how well the application is performing. When any changes need to be made, our broker office gets involved in that as well. It’s been great for us, and it provided a lot of value because we’re running our cloud activities like a business, which is what we wanted to do, wanted to achieve.”

The cloud broker office works with the business and mission areas to discuss their needs around performance, how to manage costs, the types of cloud services that make the most sense and then any ideas that the customers may have.

Washington said the entire focus of the conversation is to ensure the mission areas have the information they need to make the best decision for their goals.

Ensuring value from SaaS

Most recently that means the use of software-as-a-service cloud instances.

Washington said USDA already is using SaaS applications to a great degree, specifically around service management and business management functions.

“We do expect it to continue to grow across USDA, as long as the business case indicates a positive return on investment and improved customer experience, because we’ve been hammering home that when we transition to SaaS, we want there to be value from that,” he said. “We have been using it broadly and seen great success with reducing our technical debt, and we anticipate to continue growth.”

Washington added that because moving applications to SaaS is a bit different than using infrastructure- or platform-as-a-service, the USDA CIO Council and cloud working group have helped ease the transition by ensuring better communication with the program offices.

“We provide them with best practices, security standards, DevSecOps and other standard approaches, so we’re trying to get into having people experience reuse and repurposing code to reduce release development cycles and integrate the customer experience with the management tools and everything,” he said. “We’re becoming more mature and, like everybody else, making sure that we’re making decisions for the right reasons.”

Watch the entire discussion here.

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