data center (ESB Professional/Shutterstock.com)

VA benefits platform: Big bang, less bucks

A cloud platform based on an open-source technology stack lets the Department of Veterans Affairs use infrastructure as code (IaC) to spin up, tear down and rebuild a new environment in a matter of minutes.

“That is exponentially more efficient than anything we’ve done in the past,” said Dan McCune, executive director of application management at VA. “Standing up a new environment is usually measured in days and sometimes weeks.”

The platform behind this new capability is called the Benefits Integration Platform. Sitting in the department’s enterprise cloud environment, it takes data and systems out of previous hosting facilities -- usually data centers -- and moves them to BIP. With the cloud foundation in place, McCune said, VA is adding open-source tools that let the department use containers and microservices, create clusters and scale, giving it “the most bang for the buck from cloud.”

The BIP program leverages the Scaled Agile Framework to manage business initiatives within VA agencies, ensuring a common approach to developing application programming interfaces and microservices. It also helps identify and maximize shared services across the department.

What’s more, the platform gives VA the resiliency and scalability it needs for DevOps practices such as automated testing, builds and deployments; a continuous integration/continuous deployment pipeline; and IaC.

“We often have this problem in development: We develop the application and we test it and everything works, and we deploy to the production environment, and something doesn’t work," McCune said. "There’s some little thing -- a configuration or a piece of code or hardware -- that’s different on the production server than on the test server. We can spend hours, even days sometimes, trying to troubleshoot and figure out why does it work in one and not in the other.”

But with IaC, the developers can tear down the entire server because it’s virtual and start from scratch to create the server, services, configuration and software.

“Every time we need to build a new server -- whether it’s a test environment or a production environment -- it’s always exactly the same,” he said. “We can now do that with the BIP platform. We can spin up a brand-new environment. We can tear it down completely and rebuild it in about 12 minutes.”

More than halfway through the four-year BIP effort, VA is already seeing benefits, such as scalability, reliability and resiliency. Cost savings might also be a result of BIP, but McCune said it’s tough to compare what VA pays for data centers vs. cloud architecture because the latter brings so many more capabilities. Still, the cost of commercial hosting for current Veterans Benefits Administration systems alone was more than $100 million annually, while the BIP platform cloud hosting cost is less than 10% of that amount.

VA’s Memorial Benefits Management System and its National Gravesite Locator are 100% migrated to the platform, while the Veterans Benefit Management System -- VA’s core veteran eligibility system -- is about 25% migrated to BIP. McCune said he expects it to be fully moved in September 2020. Other divisions are in line to move to BIP soon, too.

The migration process involves first understanding a division’s legacy environment and its needs and wants, building the script and then executing it.

“We’ve gotten pretty good, I would say, over the last year at doing these web migrations,” McCune said.

That’s important, given VA’s emphasis on modernization, including digital transformation. The department’s Office of Information Technology has 700 to 800 systems and another 300 active projects at any given time, McCune said.

“We have to get smarter, faster and start to leverage more of industry best practices,” he said. “Being in the cloud allows us to build some of those technical practices like automation a lot better -- a lot more efficiently --  and move out of our data centers. Our data centers are old and very costly to keep up, and they’re never going to keep up with cloud vendors like Amazon or Microsoft Azure.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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