Agencies' pandemic response shows true power of cloud services

The virtual desktops, chatbots and other technologies that helped agencies make the best of a bad situation are likely to persist after the pandemic, one cloud experts says.

The coronavirus pandemic has presented unprecedented IT challenges for the public sector. To make the best of this bad situation, many agencies, such as the Small Business Administration, turned to the cloud to unlock new capabilities.

Speaking at FCW’s June 17 Cloud Summit,  SBA’s Chief Enterprise Architect Bill Hunt described how the agency spun up new virtual-private network models and virtual desktops for about 5,000 newly onboarded contractors, temporary staff and employees in a matter of days to cope with the surge in small business loans.

Loan processing officers use virtual desktops so that wherever they are in the country, they can treat their computer as if they were inside the SBA network. That helps, given that the pandemic is a unique emergency in that it affects the entire country simultaneously, Hunt said. Cloud helps overcome geographical challenges.

“I think a lot of these patterns, these apps that we’re rolling out for connectivity, for VPN, for virtual desktop, etc., I think a lot of these are probably going to persist long after the current emergency,” he said.

SBA also moved all of its security and monitoring capabilities to the cloud.

“You can see complete visibility between your data center, your cloud technology, your desktops all in one place to really see what’s going on across your entire network,” Hunt said, adding that SBA has embraced the zero trust networking model and Trusted Internet Connections 3.0.

What’s more, SBA has had success with chatbots through a platform-as-a-service (PaaS) setup. “The caveat here is that a lot of agencies are doing it because it’s shiny … and that doesn’t always work out well,” Hunt said of agencies’ desire to implement a popular new technology. Agencies that haven’t carefully tagged their data will likely have problems with chatbots designed to provide answers to common questions, he said: “If people can’t already Google [for the answer], then a chatbot probably isn’t going to be the best solution for you.”

Hunt also advised agencies to have conversations with their cloud providers about what happens if they run out of capacity to support customers’ needs. “Cloud is just somebody else’s data center,” he said. “It’s extremely limited at the end of the day. If they run out of large instances to do your processing and compute, you’re in trouble.”

Hunt also cautioned agencies to determine their total cost of ownership with cloud and ensure that in-house staff have cloud expertise. “Cloud is difficult,” he said. “Everything is moving and evolving. You’re aiming for a target that the runner has already passed.”

He touted federal agencies’ use of Cloud.gov, a PaaS solution based on the open source Cloud Foundry tool and built on GovCloud. Compliant with the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP), Cloud.gov enables agency IT staff to be responsible only for applications and data while it handles everything from hardware to software to networking, Cloud.gov Director Eddie Tejeda said during another summit segment titled “Landing Softly in the Cloud.”

“What we’ve done is provided the ability to accelerate the [Authority to Operate (ATO)] process, provide a consistent developer experience,” he said. It’s easy for agencies to build on top of Cloud.gov because the platform already supports security and compliance, Tejeda said. “They can focus on their mission, on the value that they are here to provide the government.”

Cloud.gov has about 50 systems that went through the ATO process with about 30 agencies and runs more than 2,100 services and 960 app instances.

One of the biggest benefits of Cloud.gov is that automated security and compliance requirements are baked into the stack and relieve application developers of having to do that themselves. The platform’s focus on the developer experience is where cloud is headed, Tejeda said.

“I think some projects will certainly need to continue to optimize infrastructure,” he said. “This is not the panacea for everyone, but I think if we continue to invest in the cloud, we need to make sure that we have a consistent and reliable structure that can support the next generation of developers.”

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