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Is SaaS the Future of Government Cloud?

Federal IT leaders highlight benefits of cloud, lessons learned and the role of software-as-a-service in the future.

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As federal agencies increasingly adopt and mature cloud environments and capabilities, software-as-a-service solutions are becoming more promising for cost efficiency and mission prioritization.

Department of Education CISO Steven Hernandez said that his agency is mature in its cloud migration, as the enterprise is now 100% in the cloud. With a cloud environment in place, Hernandez touted that the cloud has improved responsiveness and flexibility across the department, which was particularly important when COVID-19 created new challenges and needs for the agency.

“We just have incredible responsiveness to a very changing and dynamic environment,” Hernandez said during a GovExec virtual event last week. “When COVID hit, lots of folks struggled to realign their infrastructures, their resources. For us, it was really just a matter of making sure our contracts were correct and that we had the right ways to mold and shape our environment to respond to those changes. … So the cloud and the elasticity of the cloud and the dynamic nature of the cloud allowed us to stand up these capabilities in record time.”

While the department is realizing these benefits, Hernandez added that there are some new challenges that come with fully moving to the cloud. For his agency, those challenges are centered around cloud consolidation and optimization.

“I think the biggest challenge we have as we go forward with cloud is just the optimization,” Hernandez said. “The development, the evolution is just so rapid in that space. What was great yesterday is okay today. There’s better things out there, and it’s balancing the optimization of how we continue to continuously get better and use better cloud services, while consolidating our cloud footprint as well, because if we have a few core large cloud service providers or niche cloud service providers that do what we need, that’s a smaller attack surface for me to defend.”

Amid the current state of cloud at the agency, Hernandez is eyeing software-as-a-service solutions. SaaS, he said, takes a lot of the technological burden off federal agencies and to the cloud provider, leaving more bandwidth for critical work and mission support.

Department of the Interior Business Integration Director Martin Quinlan echoed Hernandez’s sentiment toward SaaS adoption. Even though infrastructure and platform as a service also help offload burden for the customer agency, Quinlan sees SaaS as the future of Interior’s cloud journey. Not only does SaaS open new technological opportunity for his agency, but also he said that it’s also ushering in pro-modernization culture across the enterprise.

“For us, the future is really more software-as-a-service, and it can be as mundane as email and file-sharing,” Quinlan said. “Everybody knows about [Microsoft] Teams, and everybody knows about Google — those types of things. And one of the big benefits for us, as the IT folks in Interior, is that that is breaking down the barriers for just the regular folks in Interior because now they understand, and they’re doing this in their private life, too. They understand that they can just got to the cloud, and it’s not some crazy thing. It’s stable, and we can do these things.”

Quinlan added that planning around the agency’s long-term capability needs is critical to choosing preferred cloud providers.

“Who you partner with really matter, and you got to make sure that who you’re partnering with has all the capabilities that you need, and you understand where they’re growing — because you’re not buying for today. You’re buying for five years from now, so you got to make sure that they have the capabilities to grow with you.”

Returning to the culture piece, Quinlan highlighted that reinforcing a culture around change that’s cloud-forward is another key piece to successful cloud adoption.

“Change is hard. Everybody knows that. But people make the change; systems don’t make the change,” Quinlan said. “We can’t have our change champion afraid of the technology. We have to make sure that that change champion understands and really has that buy-in from the get-go so that we can get the folks to focus on the capabilities.”

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