Suppose that mid-way along the long, complex road to Federal IT modernization, an agency IT manager jotted down a wish-list for the most important big-picture elements of what the promised land should look like?

After taking several whacks at the vital task of data center consolidation, and after some necessary but costly trial and error with lift-and-shift attempts to move operations to the cloud, the top of the wish list might prominently feature three elements:

  • Based on varying individual agency needs, some network assets need to stay on-prem;
  • Other network assets, including those with high security needs, can live and evolve safely in private cloud structures; and
  • The rest can take advantage of public cloud infrastructures that optimize cost savings and capacity controls.

And if the wish-list could only accommodate three words, those might spell out Hybrid Cloud Infrastructure (HCI).

Evolution of HCI

HCI, formerly the moniker of the hyper converged infrastructure realm, moves the state of the art forward from where hyper-converged suffered from an inability to “span and scale a choice of resources across the data center and multiple public clouds,” according to NetApp which offers a hybrid multicloud experience through its NetApp HCI services.

“After analyzing customer’s business goals related to digital transformation, it became evident that we could architect a unique solution to simplify IT deployments and lower costs but it could also serve as the cornerstone for their hybrid cloud strategy,” commented Kirk Kern, chief technology officer at NetApp Americas.

In a nutshell, HCI offers multiple benefits to agencies looking to modernize, including:

  • Smaller, more efficient infrastructure to reduce floor space;
  • Easier, combined management of compute, storage, and network;
  • Convenient, independent scalability of compute and storage; and
  • Reduced total cost to operate by consolidating multiple workloads.

Back to that IT modernization roadmap … It’s no surprise that HCI and its improvement on the hyper converged model is meeting expectations and demand from agencies looking for simpler directions – or even a shortcut – to the finish line. Of Federal IT managers surveyed by MeriTalk in September 2017, 64 percent planned to implement converged infrastructure in the next year or two, and the average Federal employee expected their data center to consist of 55 percent converged infrastructure by 2022.

Policy Drivers

So what’s the Federal government been doing to embrace the hyperconverged/hybrid cloud approach? While there’s been no mandate on the technology, HCI solutions fall right into place in recent policy developments, and stand to reap the benefits of policies spurring Federal IT modernization.

Chief among the policies pushing data center modernization and hybrid cloud forward is the Data Center Optimization Initiative (DCOI). You don’t have to look hard to find the language supporting converged systems, as the policy states that “agencies shall continue to principally reduce application, system, and database inventories to essential enterprise levels by increasing the use of virtualization to enable pooling of storage, network and computer resources, and dynamic allocation on-demand.”

And prominent among the recent changes to DCOI is an even stronger emphasis on virtualization. The new DCOI policy prioritizes virtualization as “critical for IT modernization efforts,” and expects “all new agency applications to use virtualization whenever possible and appropriate.”

NetApp HCI boasts the industry’s highest user density for virtualized desktops and applications from NVIDIA’s graphical processing units, helping agencies meet OMB’s mandate, Kern said.

Another clear fit is the new Cloud Smart approach. As its name suggests, Cloud Smart acknowledges the need for a hybrid cloud approach in government. Instead of a mad dash to the cloud, the new strategy puts an emphasis on improving services.

“A cloud migration strategy should not be considered a question of who owns the computing resources, data, and facility, but rather can this solution improve service delivery to citizens,” Cloud Smart states.

If that direction didn’t make the Federal government’s hybrid strategy clear, Cloud Smart spells it out even more explicitly: “Industries that are leading in technology innovation have also demonstrated that hybrid and multi-cloud environments can be effective and efficient.”

“While the market struggles with definitions and to a greater extent contractual requirements for procurement, being able to provide convergence between legacy and new applications, between private and public cloud, gives us an advantage in the market and enables the government achieve its goals sooner,” Kern said. “Last year, Forrester analyzed hyper converged systems in a report titled: The Forrester Wave: Hyperconverged Infrastructure, Q3 2018, where they named NetApp HCI a Strong Performer and a significant player as a systems provider and so we are not just storage anymore,” he said.

NetApp HCI is a strong fit with the hybrid cloud approach, with a suite of APIs and centralized management through VMWare and Red Hat.

The Road Ahead for HCI

Looking forward to future impacts on Federal IT, three words come to mind: working capital funds.

While Congress passed the Modernizing Government Technology (MGT) Act in 2017, agencies have been slow to adopt the working capital fund aspect of the bill, which will enable them to better finance large modernization projects. After prodding from Congress, the White House’s FY2020 budget proposal makes it clear to agencies that they should establish IT working capital funds.

“The Technology Modernization Fund is a spark, it’s a catalyst, but the real scalability has to be agency by agency and how they use their own money, and that’s a flywheel potentially if it works right,” said Margaret Weichert, deputy director at the Office of Management and Budget in March.

For a preview of the impact of these funds, just look at the Technology Modernization Fund, which has already funded a cloud migration and infrastructure optimization project at the Department of Agriculture, and an application modernization project to support flexible architectures at the General Services Administration.

On the subject of budgets and Congress, the President’s budget proposal may keep Federal IT spending steady compared to last year’s level of spending, but don’t expect it to stay there.

With Congress controlled by Democrats, they are likely to toss President Trump’s budget aside and make their own assessment of agency needs, which offers an opportunity for more modernization efforts. Even with President Trump’s own party at the helm, the FY2018 budget included nearly $5 billion in additional Federal IT funding compared to the White House’s request. With Democrats calling the administration’s latest budget “dead on arrival,” expect to see even more deviations from agency requests.

Leading the charge on IT issues in the House for the Democrats is Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who has been a vocal proponent of moving Federal agencies to the cloud.

“We want to press people to move to the cloud as quickly as you can, because we think that’s a better way to go, from a management point of view,” he said in January, as he took the reins of the House Oversight Subcommittee on Government Operations.


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