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VA’s Unique Approach to Cloud in the Cloud Smart Era

True to its name, cloud computing doesn’t have a single shape, and people interpret its structure in all different ways.

While cloud technology is complex, the Veteran Affairs (VA) Department’s stance on cloud computing is surprisingly straightforward, although it contains ample nuance beneath the surface. In the wake of the administration’s Cloud Smart strategy, VA is moving all of its existing applications to cloud and building all of its new applications to be cloud-ready.

Speaking to attendees at the AFCEA Health IT Summit, VA leaders outlined how the department is making the transition to enterprise cloud, elaborating on the process of implementing cloud computing across a major federal department.

“Imagine we are existing in an environment where our data can be tapped [and] permissions can be established,” said Dr. Aaron Drew, Senior Enterprise Solutions Architect at VA.

Enterprise cloud solutions are not very common in government, but VA’s adoption has been cost-efficient and generated immediate results thanks to an unconventional approach: VA does not seek to customize its cloud solutions at all once they’re implemented.

Instead, VA attempts to push the direction of cloud technology by establishing rapport with cloud service providers, evaluating the solutions that other agencies have templatized, and finally purchasing cloud commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products.

“Our approach is, we’re not going to customize,” Drew said.

The approach has paid immediate dividends. For most applications, cloud service providers usually leave agencies with many controls, meaning there’s less work before agencies implement the technology but more work afterward, said Dr. Joe Fourcade, Information Technology Specialist at VA. IT departments often take two to three weeks to configure the controls properly, and even then, there might be tweaks afterward.

However, now with VA, applications can be integrated in a day.

“There’s a great temptation to go into software once it’s added,” said Dr. Alan Constantian, Deputy Chief Information Officer and Account Manager for Clinical Health at VA. “And it’s all well-intentioned, but it adds costs.”

Reducing variability and operating as an enterprise is the only way to make the cloud transition quick and efficient for VA, he said.

There is no single reason why VA is moving to enterprise cloud. However, the move does unlock the missions outlined by VA Secretary Robert Wilkie’s four priorities: customer service; implementing the Maintaining Systems & Strengthening Integrated Outside Networks Act (MISSION Act); electronic health record; and transforming business systems.

Moving to cloud is often thought of as an enabler for modernization, but that doesn’t mean that cloud guarantees progress. VA is carefully evaluating cost savings, business systems and customer service to find areas that pay immediate dividends.

Tracking Cloud Costs and Savings

Enterprise cloud solutions are showing up on the budget sheet in two direct fashions. VA can eliminate equipment costs and reduce resource costs – such as those required to maintain cooling and electricity. Accounting for cloud technology is easier to track – as complex spending breakdowns are handled by cloud providers – and the move can generate tangential benefits, such as more physical space inside of VA medical centers following the removal of bulky hardware.

However, the panelists did warn of two traditional challenges that agencies could encounter when implementing cloud. First, for cash-strapped agencies, the front-end investment might take time before recouping the initial expenditure. Second, the cultural adjustment must be approached properly, and agencies need to know what training to implement.

Still, there are answers to both problems, whether in the form of federal funding mechanisms or established training protocols offered by industry.

“Where people were scared of cloud before, now they’re like, ‘Let’s use it,'” Fourcade said.

VA continues to unlock benefits of the cloud as it further incorporates the technology. VA is using separate cloud solutions to host and back up data and shift to more stringent security protocols. By using the cloud to upgrade identity and access management, the department has saved over $1 million a month and cut associated costs by 66 percent.

The department also has a brand new website to show for its cloud migration – which made the launch possible. The revamped VA.gov website has resulted in a 50 percent increase of online health applications, officials said.

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Avatar photo Spencer Grady-Pawl

Cloud computing, cloud, the cloud–call it what you will, it definitely seems like the future of digital government, and it’s great to see it being used to help veterans access the health services they need.