With the new Artificial Intelligence (AI) executive order and Federal data strategy on the horizon, MeriTalk connected with Rob Davies, Executive Vice President of Operations, ViON, to discuss how agencies can prepare their infrastructure to handle demands from AI, IoT, advanced analytics, blockchain, and more.

MeriTalk: The President recently signed an executive order establishing a national AI strategy. But, most agencies have analytics tools locked in a lab sandbox and aren’t sure how to leverage AI. What can help accelerate AI adoption or AI R&D?

Rob Davies: Artificial intelligence has significant untapped potential across Federal government–for national security, law enforcement, revenue collection, healthcare; the reach is endless. Applications that previously required human intelligence, including data analytics, complex processing, statistical modelling, and visualizations, are now augmented by powerful machine learning algorithms that accelerate speed to value.

Most agencies aren’t sure how to leverage AI, locking tools in a lab sandbox. There’s a disconnect between the possibilities and the reality because, right now, the intelligence we get from analytics interrupts workflow, rather than triggering an automated solution. An AI tool finds a problem, identifies it, then most often requires human intervention. The goal (and value) of AI is to find a problem, identify it, fix it, and prove it, while keeping the workflow running seamlessly. To achieve this ideal, agencies need to build a comprehensive understanding of analytics and AI before weaving it into their enterprise. We can start simple–identifying primary objectives and starting pilot programs before implementing more broadly across an agency–but agencies will need both a short-term plan to meet the mandate and a long-term strategy.

MeriTalk: Emerging technology–automation, AI, blockchain, and IoT–means more data. Are agencies finding the right balance of on- and off-prem cloud to support requirements for these new technologies?

Rob Davies: Data growth is coming from every possible angle–from saving images to streaming healthcare data to supporting the warfighter by integrating multiple data streams. We need all the raw information to be analyzed for agencies to achieve their missions. What we need, and what Cloud Smart is pushing, is a sensible assessment of the current environment. Are you running the right workload on the right platform to achieve efficiency and effectivity? This thought process is a significant shift from Cloud First thinking, which encouraged agencies to accelerate migration without addressing workforce, procurement, or security issues or gauging if the technology fit the mission.

We see that agencies are trying to gain the agility and flexibility that can come with a public cloud or a private on-premise cloud. But, some agencies have an application workload that needs modernization or changes to make it operate in a cloud. In some cases, that’s a pretty daunting application development effort. We need to keep in mind that no one platform can run every workload. Technology changes quickly; instead of shackling ourselves to one platform, we are moving to a multi-cloud world. While some applications are best suited for cloud, there are plenty of applications currently running efficiently on a mainframe that don’t need to migrate. The goal of multi-cloud is to find a healthy balance.

MeriTalk: Thinking about IT portfolios–every agency struggles with technical debt–80 percent of Federal IT dollars are still spent on life support for legacy systems. What role do data centers play in this equation?

Rob Davies: That’s true, and data centers are where that 80 percent manifests itself–in the application management, in the database administration, and in the systems management. New hyper-converged, soon to be super-converged, technology offers agencies the agility to move their workload and add flexibility to dramatically reduce the resources to run in a traditional on-prem data center model.

Data Center as-a-Service (DCaaS) provides an OpEx alternative to gain next-generation technology (storage, compute, network, hyperconverged infrastructure) along with capabilities such as data management, data protection, back-up, recovery, archiving, and analytics. It allows organizations to get used to interacting with cloud models, managing workloads, building service catalogues, and creating templates, without worrying about managing compute, storage, and network demands. Once we’ve reduced that technical debt, we can put resources toward migrating the workload to a cloud-like environment. To deliver on the promise of cloud, the workload needs to be mobile. Agencies need to develop a mobile “container” that can run in any cloud environment that makes the most sense for that agency, avoiding future application migration hurdles.

MeriTalk: FITARA Scorecard 7.0 shows mixed scores in the DCOI category–4 A’s, 8 B’s, 6 C’s, 1 D, and 5 F’s. How can DCaaS help agencies improve their FITARA scores?

Rob Davies: There are organizational and budgetary benefits, both of which translate to a major mission benefit. Half of the DCOI score is based on whether an agency meets its planned savings goal determined with OMB, while the other half is a culmination of factors including virtualization and server utilization. DCaaS maximizes cost efficiency and utilization by providing agencies the flexibility to purchase precisely what they need, when they need it.

But we’re not just talking about DCOI–agencies can invest the time and resources saved with the OpEx model to improve cloud efforts and boost grades across other categories.

MeriTalk: In tandem with Cloud Smart efforts, OMB proposed updates to the Data Center Optimization Initiative (DCOI). How are these proposed changes influencing modernization strategy?

Rob Davies: I think of Cloud Smart and the Modernizing Government Technology (MGT) Act as the carrot, and the DCOI deadlines as the proverbial stick. It’s OMB’s way of putting up guide-rails to optimize the data centers you already have and consider the cloud models that bring you agility and better economics–whether that’s on-premise, private cloud, or gov cloud.

ViON partners with agencies to accelerate speed to mission value and develop lasting modernization strategies that get them, or keep them, within these guide-rails. We work with a diverse range of companies so we can bring leading edge solutions to our customers. The ViON MarketPlace streamlines the process of researching, acquiring, implementing, and managing IT solutions. In February, ViON launched Dell EMC MarketPlace powered by ViON for mid-range storage, enterprise storage, data protection, and personal computers. We’re excited to work with Dell EMC to help transform Federal IT by modernizing the infrastructure, bringing new applications on line, shifting to new agile technology and nurturing the next-generation Federal IT workforce.

MeriTalk: Technology is changing faster than ever before. How does the DCaaS model help agencies future proof their environment?

Rob Davies: Data Center as-a-Service is purpose-built for this challenge. There’s not one solution that’s the answer for everything, but I do think this helps with Federal IT debt, with data center optimization, and with organizational development.

The promise of DCaaS and the ViON Enterprise CloudTM is the ability to solve multi-cloud challenges. Matching the right workload to the right cloud is the future. DCaaS allows for flexibility of the contract–some of ViON’s contracts have been modified near a hundred times to bring new technology into the environment. We can modify a contract in a week and have the technology in the data center within 30 days. Agencies leverage the new-found speed to do POC’s and pilots–eliminating the need to buy the technology only to find out it isn’t exactly what you need. Now an agency IT leader can get the technology, test it, determine if it works, and get rid of it if it doesn’t. In the case of an emerging technology like AI, our customers can quickly stand up an AI environment in an as-a-Service model and manage it through Dell EMC MarketPlace, which is powered by ViON, and easily scale as they build out their platform. So what would have taken months or longer through a traditional procurement cycle can be done in a very short time and without the significant up-front costs.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.