While cloud adoption by government agencies accelerated greatly during the pandemic, Federal experts agree that agencies need to create “purpose-built clouds,” as opposed to undertaking “lift and shift” cloud migrations, in order to achieve the best operational outcomes.

The lift-and-shift mentality may replicate exactly how a currently on-prem program performs, but is outdated and does not reap the “transformational” benefits that agencies want, Federal experts agreed during an August 25 NextGov event. By contrast, purpose-built clouds provide agencies with auto-scalability, cost savings, and enhanced outcomes, officials said.

“The transition to purpose-built clouds I think is really beneficial,” said Ron Williams, director of cloud adoption and infrastructure optimization at the General Services Administration’s (GSA) IT Modernization Centers of Excellence. “By building tools that are purposeful, that are considering a customer experience and how the end-users will interconnect with them or interface with them, you get a much better product.”

Williams shared an example from a time when GSA saw a small increase in its cloud account bill and realized the agency was getting 100 times the website traffic it would normally get in a typical day. GSA realized residents in California, Colorado, and Wyoming were all checking GSA’s air quality metrics on its website during fire season, according to Williams.

However, GSA did not even feel the huge traffic spike or have to make adjustments due to its auto-scale cloud capabilities.

“That rapid increase is really enabled by microservices and also by just consuming these native cloud services that the cloud providers can scale up,” Williams said. “Simply lifting and shifting from on-prem, where you’re managing VMs to a cloud provider, is not going to give you the scalability because they don’t have auto-scale capabilities just in a lift and shift.”

Sanjay Gupta, chief technology officer at the Small Business Administration (SBA), shared a similar experience with his agency from April 2020. Former President Donald Trump included SBA’s website in a tweet for pandemic relief, and Gupta said the traffic on SBA’s site went from “roughly 600 concurrent users to about 95,000 concurrent users in a blink of an eye.”

Nevertheless, SBA’s previous modernization and cloud efforts were able to stand the ultimate test and auto-scale its capabilities, Gupta said.

“It was all auto-scale, it was set up with microservices architecture, we did not feel a blip,” Gupta said. “In fact, our performance improved. And knock on wood, our ability to keep our portal to the citizens open, performing, informing, was maintained. We never had any moment of – if you will – performance degradation and or outage.”

“I’d shudder to think had we not done the foundation of modernization in the prior years, I don’t know what we would have had to face, and what our performance might have been had we not had that foundation built in the past,” Gupta added.

Microservices are just one architectural approach to creating cloud applications, but Brian Merrick, director of cloud programs at the Department of State, said his agency instead choose to use aPaaS (application Platform as a Service) and SaaS (Software as a Service). By using aPaaS and SaaS, especially for “outreach pieces,” Merrick said it was “easier to budget what those requirements would be sort of by a per-seat basis per-user basis.”

Nevertheless, Merrick agrees that a “lift and shift” to the cloud is not the best road to go down for enhanced cloud outcomes.

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“We really have only seen a couple of lifts and shifts, and they have not been that, I think, transformational,” Merrick said. “What we’re mostly seeing in our business customers is that they’re basically reimagining their business based on the art of the possible of what some of this technology can bring, using this opportunity to change their business process to take advantage of other microservices and different pieces and parts that can come together to provide more enhanced outcomes.”

“It really becomes a giant change management effort rather than, you know what I think in the past there was a lot of emphasis on sort of this one-for-one, just get it in the cloud sort of migration approach, and that really just doesn’t work well,” he added.

“It’s definitely exciting to see… people are getting their outcomes incrementally and faster and cheaper and more effectively at the end of the day.”

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Grace Dille
Grace Dille
Grace Dille is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.