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Avoiding cloudfall: A systematic approach to cloud migration

Image source: Recreation.gov Instagram

In 2011, the White House recognized the enormous opportunity for the United States government to increasingly migrate to “the cloud,” which NIST has defined as a “model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.” In other words, the “cloud” is not one thing, but rather a collection of resources and services on other people’s computers.

18F has, in recent months, been helping partner agencies do so. To do it successfully,18F has been working on reducing the costs of entry to the cloud and thinking about good practices for cloud migration. One good practice is to adopt a scaled approach to cloud migration to avoid cloudfall.

What is cloudfall?

It’s no secret that 18F promotes agile and iterative development over traditional “waterfall” approaches to software development. Waterfall, broadly defined, is a lock-step approach to development, with an emphasis on identifying all system requirements before development begins. There are many reasons why waterfall approaches often lead to poor results, but we focus on two:

  1. Forecasting. It’s extremely difficult to predict what an agency will need, especially on something brand new to the agency; and

  2. Multiple Dependencies. Particularly when dealing with multiple systems, shifting dependencies and priorities make it difficult to just “flip a switch” and expect results.

By contrast, agile and iterative approaches increase the likelihood of success, because they demand constant learning and continuous improvement.

When it comes to moving to the cloud, some agencies — perhaps due to the continued dominance of waterfall in federal IT — try to identify all of the system requirements for the cloud and to design for most of the implementation questions at the outset, before actually starting to migrate to the cloud. We call this up-front approach cloudfall.

It should come as no surprise that, when it comes to cloud migration, 18F promotes iterative migration over cloudfall. Defining the system requirements of moving to the cloud should not be an all-up-front exercise. Instead, to successfully migrate to the cloud, agencies should start small, adopt a systematic framework for cloud migration, and embrace continuous improvement.

A better approach: A systematic framework for cloud migration

Migrating to the Cloud using an iterative approach demands that an agency focus on two critical topics:

  1. Acquisition alignment: Ensuring that the agency’s procurement strategy is closely linked to the deployment strategy.

  2. Staged prioritization: Deciding what applications and services to prioritize for migration.

Acquisition alignment

It’s fundamentally important to appreciate that, today, cloud infrastructure is largely a commodity that can be bought on the commercial market on-demand. As such, developing a procurement strategy around cloud infrastructure is not the hard part; there are ample resources and well-understood requirements regarding infrastructure service.

In contrast, deployment of applications and services onto a cloud infrastructure is much more specialized. Accordingly, purchasing decisions around deployment will require close coordination between the program and procurement offices and strong execution. Fortunately, by using an iterative approach to cloud migration, both offices can develop a greater understanding of each others’ needs and continuously improve as migration proceeds.

Staged prioritization

Cloud migration can be broken down into roughly four major phases: Discovery, Alpha, Beta, and Live.

  • Discovery: Focus on understanding what you want to migrate. In this stage, the goal of the agency should be on inventorying the applications and services that the agency wants to migrate.

  • Alpha: Focus on easy, demonstrable migrations. In this stage, the goal of the agency should be on choosing applications and services that are easy to migrate and that can demonstrate early success. Here, we mean “easy” as in applications and services that have minimal integrations with other systems, very few proprietary dependencies, and are likely to have a minimal cloud-infrastructure footprint.

  • Beta: Focus on the cost-to-footprint ratio. In this stage, the goal of the agency should be on deploying applications and services that have large cost-to-footprint ratios, where the numerator is the overall infrastructure cost and the denominator is the overall application or services’s technical footprint. If there are relative simple applications that have significant computing costs, those are the highest priority during the beta stage.

  • Live: Focus on key performance metrics. In this stage, the goal of the agency is to continuously improve and to benchmark the overall quality — at a stack level and across stacks — using metrics related to (among other things) reliability, security, and efficiency of systems.

For example, say an agency has two applications: one application with a minimal number of dependencies and small cost, and second application with a moderate number of dependencies but a significant cost. The first application should be prioritized for the alpha phase, even though it has a smaller immediate business impact, because it can be an easy, demonstrable migration. The second application should be prioritized early during the beta phase because it has a high cost-to-footprint ratio.

There may be other ways to prioritize your agency’s cloud migration, depending on your specific needs and opportunities. But, in general, your agency should have a methodology to prioritize which applications and services should be migrated and when.

Conclusion

If your agency is considering a move to the cloud, we hope that you’ll consider using a systematic framework for iterative migration instead of cloudfall. If you do, and if you want 18F to help, drop us a line at 18FC@gsa.gov.

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