The First Digital Experience Government ‘Must’: The Digital Cloud
by Dan Katz
Before coming to Acquia, I worked as a web content management architect and consultant for numerous public sector enterprises, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). At DHS, my main project was the strategy, design, and implementation of a Web Content Management as a Service (WCMaaS) offering from the Office of the Chief Information Officer (and all DHS component organizations such as FEMA, USCIS, etc.). Two objectives of this effort were the consolidation of multiple CMS technologies onto an open standard, and the migration of public facing sites out of in house data centers into the cloud.
Based on a thorough evaluation by the enterprise architecture team, as well as previous successes at DHS, Drupal was chosen as the enterprise standard CMS framework. DHS chose to leverage the GSA Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) BPA on Apps.gov to procure a public cloud hosting provider.
"Offering IaaS on Apps.gov makes sense for the federal government and for the American people," said Vivek Kundra, federal chief information officer, in a release. "Cloud computing services help to deliver on this administration's commitment to provide better value for the American taxpayer by making government more efficient." - from Federal News Radio
DHS selected CGI as their provider, based partly on the fact that only a few of the vendors (CGI being one of them) had completed their FISMA moderate ATO at the time. CGI is a very competent infrastructure provider and continues to provide excellent support and service for DHS. Due to the nature of this contract vehicle however, only IaaS, not a true platform, was procured.
IaaS requires an organization to build systems on top of infrastructure to handle change control, build and deploy (DevOps), testing, monitoring and security. DHS spent considerable resources creating a bespoke platform inside of CGI for the management and operations of their WCM cloud. In addition to the cost of the infrastructure and its support, DHS must dedicate valuable internal resources to manage and maintain the platform they’ve created in CGI, as well as manage the communications between DHS and CGI, between DHS and other vendors such as Akamai and Acquia, and between DHS HQ and component organizations. In essence, what has been created is a custom government system inside of a cloud infrastructure provider’s data centers.
While there is no question that DHS has reduced software licensing costs by choosing Drupal, and set a precedent for moving an agency’s public web presence to the cloud, the efficiencies gained by changing from one data center to another are questionable.
Many large cloud hosting providers serving government agencies advertise the ability to support mission critical Drupal solutions, but more often than not these providers are infrastructure focused, and offer VM’s in a data center with canned configurations and some level of (often very expensive) managed support. It’s true, they may meet the requirements on paper, but buyer beware. Moving your website from an internal data center to a managed cloud host is no different from moving a car from your own garage to a rented space down the street. In both cases, you’d need to provide expensive maintenance and care for the car, no matter where it was garaged.
In contrast, a true digital cloud platform such as Acquia Cloud provides tools and APIs for DevOps, monitoring and health checks designed for managers and non-technical users, application level support and SLAs, and deep integration between the application and the platform. In this instance, using the car analogy, you would not have to worry about keeping the car running, or providing regular maintenance. You would not need to provide the team responsible for keeping it tuned up and ready to roll at any time. That would be a service provided for you.
When the State of Georgia made the move to Acquia’s Digital Cloud in 2012, they projected $4.7 million in cost savings based on the freedom they would gain by leveraging a true digital platform with application level support. They knew that putting the support in the hands of people whose full-time job is to support the cloud would bring them cost savings and expertise over maintaining it in-house. Expertise, time management, optimized cost, and scalability were some of the benefits they realized.
“Experts can monitor our platform and servers 24/7, providing recommendations to updates and changes if needed at a moment’s notice. We have had some issues with DDos attacks where Acquia was able to bring our websites back up and running in a fraction of the time compared to other state government websites who experienced the same attacks. The Acquia Cloud gives us room to continue to grow without hesitation or fear of hosting size and limitations.” - Nikhil Deshpande, Georgia Technology Authority
Your key takeaway from this first “Must” is that it’s not enough to “host” in the cloud. Instead, your organization needs a digital cloud platform that significantly offloads the operations, information security, and change control burden from your IT team, freeing them up to focus on serving the mission and your users. Significant cost reduction and realigning your resources toward innovation and improving service to your citizens can only take place if the burden for “keeping the lights on” shifts from your internal team to your vendor. At that point, your team can shift focus to their primary mission, and what they know best.
In the next post in this series on the New Digital Experience Government, I’ll explore Must #2: Open Technology.