Chief of the Year: Information

On June 15, Government Executive is featuring the government's chief officers of finance, human capital, information and information security in a special issue of the magazine. This year, for the second time, we've identified individuals to highlight as Chiefs of the Year. In challenging times, these individuals are leading the way in coming up with innovative solutions, providing a shining example to their peers.

Christopher Smith
Chief Information Officer
Agriculture Department

Sometimes the cloud can seem like the weather: Everybody talks about it, but no one does anything about it.

Except for Christopher Smith.

As chief information officer at the Agriculture Department, Smith is leading the largest federal migration to the cloud. He is in the midst of moving email service for 120,000 employees and contractors from 21 email systems run by the agency to a cloud run by Microsoft.

Amid the hype and some security concerns that swirl around the cloud, Smith offers a clear-eyed business case for making the move. "We looked at our portfolio and asked, 'How do we meet the business needs of our organization?' " says Smith, who became CIO in 2009.

Email at Agriculture was an obvious problem. There were more than 27 systems that were expensive to maintain and balky to operate. Finding employee email addresses in the scattered system was a problem. So was sending agencywide messages in a timely manner.

Smith decided the systems must be consolidated. He got the number still operated in-house down to 21 and was aiming for even fewer. "But as we were doing that, the cloud space was maturing," he says. "We were constantly monitoring it," and the cloud became increasingly attractive.

"Vendors were meeting our cost points and hitting all key business drivers," he says. The cloud offered better email service and collaboration tools at a better price than Agriculture could purchase for itself. With email storage on the cloud, Agriculture is also able to get rid of some costly data centers. It's consolidating from 43 to seven, and will "repurpose software licenses and hardware from the centers it is closing, he says.

With the email service come Microsoft collaboration tools including instant messaging, file sharing that enables people in different locations to work together on the same files, and videoconferencing. Smith expects those features to increase productivity and reduce travel costs. And when software upgrades are needed, they are delivered via the cloud.

Cool as it seems, moving to the cloud "has got to be a thoughtful business-driven effort. You don't want the technology to be leading the discussion," Smith says. "How can we be more efficient and effective? The cloud is one of the options."

Some cloud critics worry about security in the cloud, but Smith contends that if "appropriate security is baked in upfront," email in the cloud is as secure as in-house systems. "We were very rigorous" about security, he says.

Once the email move is complete, according to Smith, Agriculture will start moving customer relationship management functions to remote service providers.

"We have a clear modernization roadmap, and the cloud dovetails very neatly with that," he says.

Chiefs of the Year 2011 main page

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