How the VA's cloud risks paid off in hard-fought wins – Federal News Network

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The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the criticality of a cloud solution in responding to urgent demands with agility. The lessons learned in the ensuing months underscore the crucial need for the applications and capabilities the cloud enables for agencies, from cybersecurity to customer experience and beyond.
In the short term, agencies needed to rapidly pivot to support the shift to tele-everything. But now the pressure is on IT teams to deliver that availability, reliability and security for the long term—in ways that are sustainable, proactive and smart. Initially, the cloud underpinned the quick turn to remote operations. For the long game, federal personnel need more than just cloud storage: They need cloud-based, best-in-class tools that fuel productivity, interoperability and the effective delivery of citizen services.
At the Department of Veterans Affairs, the pandemic set off a cataclysmic shift. It wasn’t just the sweeping move to remote offices, but a governmentwide transition of agency workloads to the cloud while maintaining necessary on-premises applications. This convergence of onsite systems, public cloud and private data center infrastructure working together is giving rise to the hybrid environment.
The VA’s emerging hybrid environment was dramatically accelerated by the pandemic — so, too, were the agency’s IT modernization plans and progress. Like with other agencies, the pandemic was a boon for advancing modernization, but as the second-largest tech enterprise in the government, the VA’s evolution is particularly striking.
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“[VA] Secretary [Denis] McDonough’s mandate is to provide the best possible care to all of our veterans. IT modernization is a critical part of that process, and our Enterprise Cloud Solutions Office plays a key role in delivering the VA Enterprise Cloud to do just that,” Dave Catanoso, director of the ECSO, said at ScienceLogic Symposium in May. “Modernizing our digital strategy, increasing the speed of innovation and delivering better services to veterans at a faster pace … is always at the forefront of our thinking.”
That’s the ethos behind the bold strategy to migrate one of the agency’s largest and most critical applications, the Veterans Benefit Management Systems, as one of the first to the cloud. The risky move transitioned a lengthy, paperwork-heavy process to a web-based application for paperless claims processing, reducing wait times and allowing some 4,000-plus concurrent users to access more than 2 billion documents anytime, from anywhere.
“Most consultants say when you start off your cloud migration journey, you should start with a couple small applications; we went in the exact opposite direction,” Catanoso said, citing compelling business and operational reasons to do so. “On one hand, it was higher-risk and a bigger challenge, but on the other hand, by successfully completing that, it gave us the confidence that we could move almost anything to the cloud.”
Now, the VA has migrated nearly 1,000 applications to the cloud—and the transition has supported, among other benefits, a 1,831% increase in telehealth appointments between January 2020 and January 2021. In March 2021, veterans accessed 965,000 virtual appointments.
“It takes a while for that ship to start moving … once that ship starts to turn, it turns and it’s really hard to stop,” Daniel McCune, acting associate deputy assistant secretary for enterprise program management in VA’s Office of Information and Technology, said in August of digital transformation for his agency.
The transformation of 2020 changed how the VA operates for good. Some target outcomes haven’t changed but rather are building on enterprise cloud success by integrating artificial intelligence-enabled capabilities. Among the AIOps goals: ensuring availability of applications and services, improving performance response and resolution of incidents, and — perhaps most importantly — automating everything possible to help increase operating speeds.
At the ECSO, AIOps tools aim to monitor the network connectivity between systems and users in on-premises, remote and cloud environments, tracking performance from end to end. Monitoring the continuously growing number of cloud-native applications and managing the hybrid infrastructure with streamlined visibility—all simultaneously—are also top priorities.
“Having an integrated environment where we take the best-of-breed tools for their specialty and get them all working together to provide the best capabilities for our veterans is really the goal,” Catanoso said. “It’s not about which specific tool; it’s having all the tools working together to do the job and provide the best solution overall.”
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Beyond the proactive monitoring and tool integration, Catanoso said the agency is also looking at how automation can create cascading benefits throughout the VA. That includes leveraging automation to free up limited staff for higher-order tasks like innovating, providing better services and focusing on delivering capabilities to staff members and veterans.
The focus on automation goes beyond the ECSO. McCune said officials at VA’s Office of Information Technology are looking at automation as part of a bigger push toward rapid, agile software development that improves on previous efforts—and that continues to advance the VA’s IT modernization.
“All you have to do is look at your iPhone or your Android phone, and the number of applications you have installed, to know that the demand for automation and the demand for software is growing, and certainly that’s just as true in VA,” McCune said in July on Ask the CIO. “I’ve read all the DevOps books I can get my hands on. I’ve had a lot of consultants talk to me about how to do digital transformation. But ultimately, you have to create your own playbook and chart your own path because it has to make sense for your organization.”
Dave Link is CEO of ScienceLogic.
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