State of federal cloud remains optimistic with a chance of budget pessimism

Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on IT operations, asked an interesting question at a recent hearing in San Antonio, Texas: “What is the state of federal cloud computing?”

Not quite as enthralling as a President’s State of the Union — and of course a lot less standing ovations at Hurd’s hearing — but it brings up a timely question about just how much progress agencies have made since the Office of Management and Budget’s 2011 “cloud-first” mandate. This February will be five years since former federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra issued that mandate.

Nearly every CIO is moving something to the cloud — email, public websites and other basic technology services. Others such as the Federal Communications Commission, the Homeland Security Department and even the Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission (MACPAC) have done a lot more than these basics, putting entire infrastructures in the cloud.

Mark Kneidinger, the Homeland Security Department’s director of Federal Network Resilience Division in the Office of Cybersecurity and Communications, offered an interesting, though a bit old, status update at the hearing.

Kneidinger, the only federal executive to testify at the field hearing, said a February 2015 data call among the CFO Act agencies revealed they implemented 32 infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS), 24 platform-as-a-service (PaaS) and 77 software-as-a-service (SaaS) instances. DHS conducted this survey to better understand how agencies are applying the security feature known as the Trusted Internet Connection (TIC) program.

Kneidinger said DHS found “the majority of services were for email, customer relationship management, SharePoint, case management applications, collaboration tools, Web hosting and help desk capabilities, with few instances where agencies had migrated high-value applications.”

A recent survey of federal CIOs by Federal News Radio told  a similar story. A majority of respondents said they’ve migrated email and/or a collaboration system to the cloud, while other potential functions such as financial management, records management and software test and development saw a much lower rate of cloud adoption.

When asked about which types of systems are top of their priority list to move to the cloud, a higher percentage of CIOs said agency-specific apps and mission critical apps.

The one concerning response when it comes to cloud is more than 80 percent of the CIOs said they wouldn’t move their priority apps to the cloud for at least seven months, and 31 percent of that 80 percent said it would be more than a year before they are off legacy systems.

CIOs also are more comfortable with the commercial cloud. Just over half said for the most part their apps reside in a commercial cloud, while another 28 percent said they use a hybrid cloud or government-only commercial cloud. This trend likely will continue as well as agencies move more applications to the cloud. CIOs ranked commercial and hybrid clouds as their top priority for future deployments.

So what does this all mean?

Agencies are making progress, but — like many things — it’s taking time. The slow roll, as Hurd said at the hearing, is mainly attributed to the ongoing battle of federal agencies to change spending habits.

Federal CIO Tony Scott said recently agency spend on legacy systems is climbing back toward the 80 percent mark after several years of decline.

Scott has promised to come out with a strategy or an approach this fall to swing the pendulum the other way toward development, modernization and enhancement (DME) spending.

Federal News Radio’s survey found 26 percent of CIOs said  they spend more than 76 percent of their budget on legacy systems, while a total of 56 percent are spending 51 percent or more. Additionally, 74 percent of all respondents said their agency struggles to get out of the cycle of spending on legacy systems.

“[It’s] very difficult to retire a legacy system or program,” one CIO wrote in the survey. “[It’s] also challenging to get new programs underway via the budget process.”

Another CIO said, “We simply do not have the resources to update legacy systems, nor the governance to force that change.”

To change their spending habits, agencies need to understand how much it’s costing them to run the entire workload, said Alan Boissy, product line manager at VMware vCloud Government Service, who testified at the hearing.

Boissy said piloting apps on a small scale will give agencies that experience of understanding how much the entire package costs — not just the applications, but the data center, the power, the people and other parts that shows the cost savings and/or efficiencies the cloud brings.

But Kneidinger said it’s more than just changing spending habits, but it’s a matter of trust between cloud providers and agencies through the contractual relationship to delineate each party’s roles and responsibilities.

Without a doubt, agencies are moving to the cloud. It has been one of the most readily accepted technology evolutions over the past 20 years, but the Office of Management and Budget’s plan or approach or strategy — or whatever they end up calling it — to move agencies off of O&M spending more quickly is the most important piece to the cloud puzzle.

This post is part of Jason Miller’s Inside the Reporter’s Notebook feature. Read more from this edition of Jason’s Notebook.

Related Stories