DISA’s HaCC prioritizing customers over technology

The Hosting and Compute Center (HaCC) at the Defense Information Systems Agency wants to be the “provider of choice” for Defense Department organizations, according to Director Sharon Woods. To do that, HaCC is prioritizing the customers over the technology itself.

“So as HACC started rolling out new products, it really became clear that it’s more than the products. It’s about great service to achieve that velocity of action,” Woods said during FCW’s June 15 DoD...

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The Hosting and Compute Center (HaCC) at the Defense Information Systems Agency wants to be the “provider of choice” for Defense Department organizations, according to Director Sharon Woods. To do that, HaCC is prioritizing the customers over the technology itself.

“So as HACC started rolling out new products, it really became clear that it’s more than the products. It’s about great service to achieve that velocity of action,” Woods said during FCW’s June 15 DoD Cloud workshop. “And so to answer that call, not just for velocity of action, but dynamic change … we have to move quicker, we have to do more. And so the HACC is designing a dynamic customer service experience for our cloud customers, the warfighter.”

HaCC is focused on getting the best possible value to the warfighter, as quickly as possible. Toward that end, its customer service experience consists of three components:

  • agile customer relationship management.
  • self-service support.
  • resiliency for the warfighter.

Agile customer relationship is all about speed to capability. With the shift to focusing on near-peer adversaries, and with a constantly changing cyber threat environment, the requirements of warfighters are changing as well. It’s not enough to spend a year developing a solution, and hope it works. DoD’s mission is too diverse and variable for that.

“We don’t start a project anymore, unless we can deliver some kind of minimal viable product within six months,” Woods said. “We’re very much focused on iterative micro-successes, not just so that we’re making progress, but that we’re making this incremental progress in a way that lets us pivot to user demand to respond to that continuous user feedback.’

One way HaCC is doing that is by using Salesforce to gather feedback and experience from its customers. It also reveals strategic alignments. Often the customer is not the only one having that same problem, but due to silos, no one else is aware of the others’ difficulties. So HaCC is using that experience data not only to inform its own processes and priorities, but also to build partnerships and coalitions.

For example, Woods said DoD’s infrastructure code baselines were originally automated and pre-configured in order to facilitate the rapid creation of a cloud environment. The intention was to develop those baselines in the unclassified environment in AWS and Azure. But through the gathering of feedback, HaCC concluded that wouldn’t be enough. So now it’s added Google and Oracle to those baselines to satisfy the customers’ need for more vendors. It’s also just pushed its first baselines into the classified environment, Woods said, something else the customers expressed a need for.

“Had we not been focused on agile customer relationship management, I think we would have missed the boat on what the customer really needs and allowing the customer to drive where we’re going, and not guess,” Woods said. “And I think that’s something historically that the department can be better about. And we’re looking to continually partner with industry so that we can get your perspective on what you’re seeing in your engagement so that we can understand that collectively.”

In another example, Woods said HaCC just developed a new product: containers as a service. HaCC was looking for a simple, common problem to solve, and it settled on web servers. They have to be set up individually every single time, unless automation is involved. Often, that means manual processes on more than 1,000 different web sites, each one carrying the potential for human error.

So HaCC developed a single, containerized web server that then automatically propagated to all the others. That provided immediate security hardening, and HaCC was able to turn that around in less than six months. In fact, Woods said, it’s already been piloted, and HaCC is already receiving and incorporating the feedback.

That’s why Woods said HaCC devotes an entire team to understanding customer needs and feedback.

“It is time consuming to reach out to customers and really try and understand what’s going on. But what’s the point, unless you’re taking the time to really understand if what we’re doing is responsive to their needs?” Woods asked.

Meanwhile, HaCC turns to self-service support to enable and empower the customer to solve their own problems. Automated password resets are one example that is currently being incorporated by the DoD and industry. Woods said HaCC’s predecessor organization was doing manual password resets across a Microsoft 365 environment with more than three million users. She called it “horrifying.”

That’s why HaCC is making automation a major component of Stratus, DISA’s private cloud replacement for milCloud.

Finally, resiliency for the warfighter is an acknowledgement of two fundamental inevitabilities:

  1. Issues, especially catastrophic ones, will happen in any environment.
  2. DoD, because of its unique mission, is necessarily more prone to catastrophic issues.

That’s why everything has to be engineered with resiliency in mind. Woods compared it to when Netflix intentionally released the Chaos Monkey code to see how well its environment could withstand such an attack. In addition to making catastrophic issues more likely, Woods said DoD’s unique mission also demands resiliency. Warfighters need to know that their cloud environment can withstand pressures.

“We can’t just deliver good IT, that’s not good enough,” Woods said. “We have to deliver a dynamic customer service experience so that we’re not just delivering best value IT, but we’re doing it in a way that really matters for the customer, that solving their problems.”

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