Why GSA believes its new cloud services contract is different than past efforts

Sonny Hashmi, the commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service in the GSA, said agency and vendor feedback on the draft statement of work is critical to make...

CAMBRIDGE, MD — The General Services Administration is trying, once again, to remove the complexities that agencies face when buying cloud services.

This has been a long-standing goal across multiple administrations and multiple attempts that have struggled to gain traction across government.

But the draft statement of work for the latest effort, called Ascend, which GSA released last week, is the culmination of months of research and discussion with agencies and industry experts.

Sonny Hashmi, the commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service in the GSA, said he believes Ascend will be different than previous attempts to create big cloud procurement vehicles.

Sonny Hashmi is the commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service at GSA.

“I don’t want to make the presumption that we’ve figured it out. The process to get to an endpoint on Ascend is going to require a lot of dialogue, and I don’t want to us to move forward without it,” Hashmi said after his speech at the Emerging Technology and Innovation conference sponsored by ACT-IAC. “It goes back to how we were talking about user centric design. There’s got to be a user need, and in this case, it’s got to be an agency need that Ascend will address. That will dictate what the vehicle looks like how it’s going to be designed because without it, it is not going to be successful.”

Hashmi, who served as GSA’s chief information officer and worked in industry before taking over as commissioner, is familiar with the previous attempts to create cloud vehicles. He said one reason for the lack of adoption is the vehicles didn’t take an agency mission-need first approach.

“At this point, we’re being very deliberate about making sure that there is an actual need on the other side of this. Adoption is going to happen not just because it’s going to be a forcing function, but because there’s actually a need that we’re solving. If we’re not, if it turns out that we’re behind and agencies don’t have a need, then I would rather actually not do this,” he said. “While we’re excited about this program, ultimately, its job is to solve a problem and help agencies to deliver on mission. If there’s a better way or a different way to solve for the problems that we are facing, we’re happy to change tactics on it.”

The current thinking for Ascend, as outlined in the draft statement of work is to create three separate pools of vendors to deliver infrastructure- and platform-as-a-service, software-as-a-service and cloud professional services.

“The Ascend BPA is part of the GSA’s cloud marketplace vision of empowering agencies to develop and implement enterprise-level cloud acquisition strategies through a modernized and simplified approach to meet their IT and cybersecurity requirements,” the draft solicitation states. “The BPA will emphasize cloud smart/security smart objectives, and establish minimum baseline requirements for the acquisition, business, operations, reporting and technology capabilities provided by commercial cloud service providers (CSPs) and cloud-focused labor service providers that are not currently accessible under other GSA Multiple Award Schedule (MAS) or governmentwide acquisition contracts (GWACs). The Ascend BPA will focus on enabling support for both vertical (e.g., IaaS, PaaS, SaaS) and horizontal capabilities across the ecosystem and will provide more effective system integration and managed support services for the delivery of flexible, diverse, and secure cloud solutions.”

Feedback on Ascend is due to GSA by June 6.

New level of maturity to cloud buying

“We’ve been thinking about this challenge for some time, at least a year of internal deliberations. But now it’s time to really get industry engaged, and that’s why we released the draft work statement. We look forward to robust conversations, both from cloud service providers, services companies, system integrators and others, to really help us think about not only the purchasing method, mechanism, the methods, but really help us help shape our thinking around the future of digital transformation will look like,” he said. “We’re hoping this will be one mechanism, or the primary and most usable mechanism for agencies to think about when they’re thinking about modernizing their digital stacks.”

More broadly, Hashmi said, Ascend is trying to bring the “next level of maturity” to agencies as they adopt cloud services.

He said Ascend will let agencies buy cloud services “by the drink” or under a consumption based model. It will let GSA on-ramp new cloud service providers as they become available as well as contract holders bring innovation to the federal sector as required and necessary.

“We have flexibilities and ability that we haven’t exercised at scale before,” Hashmi said. “The other thing for me is creating a marketplace that is competitive. It can’t just be a small number of highly capable cloud companies. If you don’t create continuous opportunities for new companies to join the marketplace, then we have failed because this market is changing very rapidly.”

GSA has tried similar cloud acquisition vehicles previously for email-as-a-service and IaaS back in the early days of cloud buying. It found agencies didn’t want just a contract to buy cloud services, but wanted the full range of support from the cloud itself to integration services to ongoing support.

Gray areas still need to be worked out

Nearly 10 years later and as agencies spent about $8.6 billion on cloud services last year, with GSA acquisition vehicles accounting for $1.6 billion in 2020 and almost as much in 2021, Hashmi believes the time is right for this new approach.

“I think too many people talk about cloud as a thing that is different, unique and we need to buy it specially. Cloud is just part of how we modernize and how we deploy technology. So yes, when you use the Alliant vehicle to modernize, and the primary focus would be to buy professional services to help you modernize your solutions and technologies. Cloud is going to be a component of that,” he said. “Similarly when you want to just buy a discrete number have licenses and it’s easy and fairly straightforward for buyers to use the schedule contract. But there’s a huge opportunity and challenge right now between those two extremes. There’s more and more agencies who are going to multi-cloud environments. These require agencies to think about how these cloud technologies work with each other and integrate with each other, and then how to secure them. There are specialized services and it’s also highly complex licensing models that are becoming challenging for agencies to procure through a straightforward vehicle like the schedule. So Ascend is designed to solve for that problem.”

He added FAS also recognizes that Ascend may overlap or even have some gray areas with Alliant 2 or the schedule contract.

“We do think that if we hadn’t heard, loud and clear, from our customer base about the need to have a flexible, agile way to engage with cloud providers, we would not be pursuing down this road,” he said. “But we’ve seen that over and over again, we’re seeing a lot of agency-level, BPAs, which I think adds complexity and frustration to the industrial base. No company wants to bet on a Department of Commerce, BPA, Department of Homeland Security BPA and a Defense Department BPA, we do want to make sure that we also reduce friction and burden for the industry, and this is one way to do it.”

Early versions of Ascend also have come under scrutiny by industry associations. The Coalition for Government Procurement wrote a letter to GSA last fall expressing concerns that another cloud BPA will be duplicative and wasteful.

Hashmi said these concerns and other questions that have come up over the last six months is why GSA is putting out the draft statement of work. The feedback from large and small companies, from agencies, from associations and from anyone is critical to Ascend’s success.

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