Pushing for Liftoff

Agencies are making their case for the cloud, despite some unique challenges.


Last year, when he was federal chief information officer, Vivek Kundra laid out an ambitious strategy for adopting cloud computing across government, calling on agencies to invest a quarter of all information technology spending—$20 billion—in Web-based IT operations.

Considering computing services in the cloud are still relatively new and the public grasp of the concept still hazy, this would appear a tall order. But several agencies have leaped into the fray, deploying cloud-based systems to handle email, collaboration and high volumes of public communications.

These deployments have not been without hurdles. IT leaders have sweated the details of transitioning from legacy systems, while others have finessed the finer points of scaling Web-based products to meet their needs. Some have been challenged to consider turning over major IT operations to third-party providers.

These efforts have proved worthwhile for some, with cloud systems delivering greater efficiencies at lower cost. The following case studies examine cloud transitions at four agencies: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of Investor Education and Advocacy, the National Archives and Records Administration’s Office of Government Information Services, and the Agriculture Department.


National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The Setup

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration needed a way to distribute more services to more people.

The agency wanted an email and collaboration tool that would reach its community of 25,000 employees, contractors and associates across the country and around the world, many working on the oceans and in the skies. The ideal solution would provide capabilities such as telework and video chat.

Planners identified cloud-based communications as the smartest option. In January, NOAA announced the completion of its $11.5 million project with Earth Resources Technology Inc., based in Laurel, Md., to unify messaging services. The company linked NOAA’s systems using Google Apps for Government, a suite of Web-based messaging applications, in partnership with Google, Unisys and Tempus Nova Inc.

According to Google Apps deployment manager Kennith Jackson, the six-month deployment was “a remarkable achievement.” But that achievement was not without its hurdles.

The Challenges

Chief among the obstacles was the new system’s calendar feature. Schedules needed to sync up, and that was no small feat, says NOAA Chief Information Officer Joseph F. Klimavicz.

A large percentage of the workforce already was using Google Apps and its calendar function prior to the full system rollout—but not everyone. When the switch was thrown, everyone would have to land on the same calendar system at the same time, something that could not be taken for granted with disparate systems already in play.

Klimavicz put a twofold safeguard in place. He kept the old system running in parallel with the new and backed up existing data on paper. Everyone printed hard copies of their calendars before the changeover. To head off other possible issues, he has been proceeding incrementally. While cloud-based collaboration opens doors to productivity, it also can invite a degree of chaos,
Klimavicz notes. Too much information moving among too many people raises the risk of wires getting crossed.

NOAA has rolled out collaboration tools only to its internal users, holding off on inviting in its external partners until the system has proved manageable. “We want to have a process in place before we fully turn on all the functionality. We don’t want the collaboration to get out of control to the point where it becomes more difficult to find information,” he says.

IT managers have made similar choices through every step of deployment, keeping the new services on a tight rein as staff adjusts to the change.

Video chat functions, for instance, place heavy demands on computing resources. “We’ve got hundreds of facilities across the country, and not all of them have robust bandwidth,” Klimavicz says. “So do we turn on that capability and potentially bring down the network?” His solution has been to launch videoconferencing tools, but also to set configurations that control their use.

Klimavicz puts fundamentals first, making sure nothing moves forward unless email and calendar functions are performing as planned. “I want to make sure the core set of services works. If you try to do too much you are going to dilute your staff. You are going to be trying to respond to too many changes all at once,” he says.

The Results

To appreciate the magnitude of this project, it helps to look at the numbers.

Prior to the switch NOAA used 19 email systems nationwide, each with its own configuration. To complete its conversion to the cloud, the agency had to migrate 36 terabytes of data—150 million email messages—in 25,000 accounts. But system administrators received just 129 requests for help at the time of the changeover.

Preparation made a difference. In the months preceding the change, IT planners sent out informational emails to employees every other week and offered extensive training. The planners also showed a willingness to be flexible, allowing users to continue running the email clients they were accustomed to, such as Outlook and Thunderbird.

Implementation demanded rigorous planning, careful scripting and a lot of contingency thinking. Ultimately, though, it was the wisdom of other IT leaders that helped the NOAA team, according to Klimavicz. “Something like this requires a lot of learning from others, a lot of talking to other people who have done these kinds of things before,” he says.

That research paid off. Klimavicz estimates the agency’s Google Apps implementation cost roughly half the price of an in-house system.

Securities and Exchange Commission Office of Investor Education and Advocacy

The Setup

If Thomas Bayer has been busy, he can thank Bernard Madoff.

Since 2009, after investors lost billions in a Ponzi scheme run by Madoff, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of Investor Education and Advocacy has been deluged annually with 90,000 tips, complaints and referrals from the public. As SEC chief information officer, Bayer needed to update a decade-old IT system that could not keep up with the pace of data rolling in.

SEC has a workforce of 3,700 in 12 offices across the country in a variety of specialties, including attorneys, accountants, examiners and economists. Bayer faced a special circumstance in his search for a solution. Unlike some federal
agencies that have large information technology divisions, Bayer has about 130 people working in-house. He relies on 1,100 contract employees for the bulk of the agency’s IT services.

It’s not a handicap, he says. Working with contractors gives him the flexibility to move staff power where it’s needed. But the arrangement requires an extra level of coordination in any big deployment.

In this case that deployment involved migrating the Office of Investor Education and Advocacy to Salesforce.com, a Web-based system for interacting with the public. The cloud service gives employees, no matter where they are located, “the ability to take in [queries] from our customers, and to use business process workflow to make sure those questions and inquiries were answered in timely manner,” he says.

The Challenges

Prior to coming to SEC in 2010, Bayer worked at Citibank, where he migrated applications such as credit card processing to a hosted data center. So he had some idea what kinds of snags to anticipate with this project.

He was aware that security would be an issue with any Web-based system, especially at SEC—a virtual stockpile of sensitive financial information.

The CIO knew he would have to make the case for moving to the cloud not only to his internal customers but also the agency’s technologists. Some were likely to balk at the prospect of putting a major migration in the hands of a third party. But he believed the trade-offs in public transparency and response time would far outweigh those concerns, and security controls were getting more sophisticated in the cloud.

It helped that Bayer had been down that road already. “When I came to the SEC I brought with me my experience working with third-party vendors and the knowledge that they were perfectly capable of gearing up,” he says. “You give them a problem, you get them to commit to a schedule, and they will deliver on time and on budget for you.” In his experience, third-party providers have fulfilled the promise of cloud services, taking the heavy lifting off his hands while providing security and reliability.

The Results

The rollout of Salesforce.com took place very much in the public eye, with SEC and the financial institutions it regulates under scrutiny in the wake of high-profile scandals. “There is always a pressure to deliver and just then there was a key thrust for the SEC to get these systems up and working,” Bayer says. “Our own inspector general had pointed out that we needed tips, complaints and referrals capabilities. Members of Congress were stressing that.”

By the time it was completed in mid-2011, the cloud-based system had met those expectations. Costing less than $300,000, the implementation has improved efficiency. Public contacts via email, Web forms, postal mail, fax and phone now are streamlined into a single queue and can be processed electronically. According to SEC’s report, the system has cut the time it takes to resolve cases by up to 75 percent.

“I look at managing technology as a giant business case,” Bayer says. “I want to give the best set of features, the most robust set of features with the highest availability and uptime, at the lowest cost.” And for him that means moving to cloud-based services.

National Archives and Records Administration Office of Government Information Services

The Setup

The federal government archives billions of documents, and the Freedom of Information Act is supposed to guarantee public access to many of them. But getting to them isn’t always easy.

In September 2009, the National Archives and Records Administration set up an office to help citizens access documents through the FOIA process. The Office of Government Information Services, which began with a one-person staff that has now grown to seven, faced an information landslide.

“We knew really early on that we needed a system to handle our caseload—
and we had no idea how big that caseload would be,” says OGIS Director Miriam Nisbet. The small office turned to cloud technology for the scalability needed to manage an unpredictable work flow. From 2009 to 2011, OGIS took on 1,200 cases involving disputes or requests for assistance, but future volume remains uncertain for this relatively new office.

OGIS contracted with technology firm Active Network to build a self-service website for citizens seeking help in resolving FOIA requests. Launched in November 2011, ogis.archives.gov
includes a searchable library of FOIA terms and concepts, an online submission process for those requesting assistance, and the ability to review the status of a case and communicate directly with OGIS staff.


The Challenges nara

Considering the potentially sensitive nature of information passing through the system, Nisbet and the vendor had to home in on just what information from outside sources would be visible on the OGIS website. Requests can run the gamut, from relatives seeking information on long-dead family members, to reporters looking into the federal response to a major oil spill.

In addition, the solution also had to mesh with existing National Archives systems. Planners wanted to ensure that the office would not in the future find itself out of step with any changes in its parent agency’s IT infrastructure.

Finding that an in-house system would exceed OGIS’ technology capacity, planners decided a third-party service provider could resolve these issues more cost-effectively. By going to the cloud, OGIS achieved needed scalability, an adaptable infrastructure to drive the public interface and the flexibility to engage seamlessly with existing National Archives systems. The cloud deployment cost $400,000, which includes $100,000 for ongoing maintenance, and took 15 months to complete. IT planners see potential for much more savings on the operational side. According to researchers at the Brookings Institution, federal agencies are experiencing up to a 50 percent savings by moving to the cloud.

The Results

A key component of the project was not so much the technology itself, but rather its ability to replicate OGIS’ processes in the cloud. “We had to make sure we were able to walk through all the steps we needed, everything that happens from the moment we got a phone call or an email or a letter, to the moment we closed the request. We had to figure out every single step in our process,” says Nisbet, adding that the goal was to incorporate them all into one system.

OGIS’ small IT force worked in close cooperation with the vendor. “As they were building prototypes we would go over them and say, ‘yes, this works’ or ‘no, this doesn’t.’ It was an intensive process,” Nisbet says. “You don’t just say, ‘Here’s a go-kart, could you please turn this into a Cadillac?’ ”

The new site has drawn roughly
35 visitors per day, compared with OGIS’ early site, which attracted about 21 visitors a day.

The original site, a bare-bones affair built on a Microsoft Access database, provided minimal functionality. Nisbet gives credit to the enhanced functionality of working in the cloud. “People can come to the website, and they can open a case through the website,” she says. “That’s new, and that’s really significant.”

Agriculture Department

The Setup

The numbers tell the story at the Agriculture Department: Having 120,000 employees on 29 disparate email systems can make it tough to do business.

Chief Information Officer Chris Smith looked for a cloud-based solution, but couldn’t find anything robust enough to handle USDA’s email demands. So he began by migrating half the employees
to an in-house network built on the Microsoft Exchange platform, paring the total number of email systems to 21.

By 2010, cloud-based technology had matured, and Smith came to believe it could offer better economic justification than Agriculture’s current approach. He signed a $27 million contract with Dell and Microsoft to deliver Microsoft Online Services for email and collaboration across the department.

The Challenges

Having consolidated 60,000 employees onto a Microsoft platform, Smith had a leg up on implementing the new network. Still, the scope of the project paired with the complexity of legacy systems presented challenges. “It’s everything. It’s the environment on the desktop where the end user accesses the system. It’s the network that this rides on. It’s a new service provider,” Smith says. “And then you have to have a workable concept of operation. Even in the cloud you still need to have a Level 1, 2 and 3 help desk. You have to make sure that all those things work.”

Beyond any particular technical solution, Smith relied on in-house expertise. “USDA has a very mature project management capability and IT staff, so when we saw hurdles we had the forethought and experience to identify those,” he says.

The Results

As the rollout began, planners met weekly and broadcast regular updates to employees. Deployment required a willingness to shift on the fly, and the team reshaped the plan to accommodate necessities such as mobile devices. “We realized that one of the best things we could do was to take an offering that we had for 40,000 people and stand that up as an enterprise service so that anyone with a smartphone would be able to connect through that,” Smith says.

There have been big wins. Email capacity has grown from 250 megabyte inboxes to 5 gigabytes. The unified system enhances communications and team work with access to live chat, Web meetings and other collaboration tools. And the average cost per mailbox has dropped from $150 to less than $100. “I can’t put a number on all that in terms of savings,” Smith says. “But clearly it’s a big improvement.”

Adam Stone, a freelance journalist based in Annapolis, Md., writes about federal management issues, technology and business.

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