Doorway on steps in the clouds

A solid cloud foundation proves crucial at crunch time

During the pandemic, the Small Business Administration began standing up new applications in hours, not days, weeks or months. An agency heavily involved in the economic recovery effort, SBA simply didn’t have more time.

For instance, when the Paycheck Protection Program launched in April 2020, the agency designed, developed, tested, secured and delivered a tool to help people find a loan lender in less than 180 hours, SBA CTO Sanjay Gupta said.

“Necessity is the mother of innovation,” he said during General Dynamics IT’s May 26 “Emerging Technology” virtual series. “We had to improvise, we had to innovate. There was no choice, and we were all faced with a situation that none of us had anticipated.”

A solid foundation in the cloud also proved crucial at crunch time. On April 3, 2020, then-President Donald Trump tweeted the agency’s URL, SBA.gov, as the primary portal for providing lending information. Within an hour, traffic rose by nearly 1,000%, but because the site it was in the cloud with a microservices architecture, scaling to handle the load was automatic, Gupta said.

“Had we been in the traditional environment, I have no idea what would have happened,” he said.

Cloud also helped support the move to telework and a quadrupling of staffing in the past 14 months to help with an increased workload. In a typical year, SBA handles $25 billion to $30 billion in loans and capital for small businesses, but in the past year, it processed nearly $1 trillion.

As SBA employees moved to remote work, the agency accelerated the use of secure network access solutions, which it had already begun deploying to replace VPN solutions, “because we knew that was a much more scalable solution,” Gupta said. When VPN in general became overwhelmed, SBA remained up and running.

Cloud was also crucial at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which relies on a largely paper-based processes to license companies to construct, operate and decommission commercial reactors and manage nuclear materials and waste.

“One of the things that we found [out] early in the pandemic was that our licensees had a need for some relief from some of our regulatory requirements as a result of some of the challenges they were facing with the pandemic,” NRC Deputy CIO Scott Flanders said. “Our normal processes that would support that would not be timely enough for the timeline they needed.”

To respond to relief requests faster, NRC implemented e-signatures and established a web-based request process rather than asking businesses to send paper applications. “We really leveraged our DevSecOps and a continuous delivery pipeline,” Flanders said, pushing out within weeks a minimum viable product.

Like SBA, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives benefitted from previous modernization efforts when the pandemic hit. It had already switched new development to the cloud and was in the process of migrating legacy on-premises systems. As a result, “our development process and pace went basically unaffected by the switch to maximum telework,” ATF CIO Mason McDaniel, said.

Looking ahead, he sees automation as a crucial capability for the agency. “We want to get our system administrators away from managing individual systems or even changing systems that are live in the environment,” he said. “We want to get them toward managing the automation system to let them go and en masse and reliably and repeatably update all of the systems out there.”

The combination of cloud and DevSecOps will continue to be a game-changer, Gupta said. First, as cloud use increases, the ability to process large amounts of data increases. That leads to increased use of artificial intelligence, which is powered by data.

“It is about harnessing the data we already have and the power that comes through harnessing that data and being able to do things which we have not done so far, which is cross-pollinate data across the larger federal landscape,” he said, and then apply emerging tech to find trends.

All three experts are optimistic about the future of IT.

“Technology is going to continue to evolve, and it allows us to really provide ways to carry out our mission in ways that we probably haven’t thought about,” Flanders said. “As that frontier continues to evolve and that technology continues to change, I think it presents a number of opportunities.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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