State and local agencies are faced with a perfect storm that is driving them straight to the cloud. With the Federal government mandating IT modernization across the Federal landscape and the increased need for improved citizen services due to the ongoing pandemic, state and local governments are turning to cloud capabilities and exploring their migration options to keep pace. But not all clouds are created equal, and government entities face many barriers on their journey to the cloud. MeriTalk recently sat down with Jason Wicker, lead architect, government services, and Joe Nanus, senior state and local government and education sales lead, at Rackspace Technologies to discuss how to overcome those barriers by working with a cloud advisor broker to save costs, support technology teams, and accelerate the move to the cloud.
MeriTalk: A new survey of state CIOs by NASCIO and Accenture shows that CIOs fully recognize the benefits of the cloud, including cost savings, flexibility, scalability, security, and improved experiences for residents. But they also confront significant challenges in the move to the cloud. In your experience, what are the biggest barriers to the cloud for state and local governments?
Jason Wicker: Resources are a significant issue right now. We’ve all seen the headlines – it’s an extremely tight job market across all industries, and state and local government technology teams are struggling to fill open positions with the right people who understand both government and technology to support an efficient move to the cloud. The lack of resources is an issue that extends beyond just moving to the cloud, because agencies also need to maintain the solution going forward. Because of the lack of resources, many agencies aren’t running multiple projects in parallel. They will do project A, then project B, and then project C instead of doing all cloud modernization projects at the same time, which ultimately improves efficiencies and can save costs in the long run.
Cost is another barrier. Budgets are always an issue as state and local agencies deal with buying mechanisms and fixed budgets where they have to define the ongoing cloud cost, but cloud costs could fluctuate month-to-month based on usage. Cloud brokers can help support budgeting by negotiating things like cloud credits or pre-buying upfront.
Joe Nanus: Another barrier is that many agencies don’t have a lot of experience with writing RFPs for cloud services. They tend to write RFPs that treat cloud as commodity-type hardware buys. This is another area where having an experienced broker can help, as brokers can vet the RFP so the agencies are getting the right responses to satisfy their actual cloud needs and their procurement requirements.
Wicker: And lastly, cybersecurity is paramount right now. Agencies making the move from a secure, on-premises environment to the cloud may have concerns about keeping their information and systems secure, and those concerns may hold them back from fully embracing the cloud.
MeriTalk: Do the barriers differ for local governments in any way?
Wicker: One of the biggest challenges is understanding the cloud marketplace. We see local agencies wanting the cloud that’s going to be the cheapest and the best or the fastest, but they don’t have deep cloud knowledge.
Because of this, we are seeing local agencies try to create a data center in the cloud because that’s what they know, as opposed to using the cloud to leverage the functions that make cloud a modern, efficient technology tool. The legacy bias that many local agencies have will cost them more money and reduce the effectiveness of their cloud migration.
Nanus: In some cases, local leadership becomes a barrier because they aren’t sharing the overall cloud strategy with their teams. Without knowing the strategy, people at the system administrator level may feel threatened by a move to the cloud. They may feel that their jobs are in jeopardy. I’ve seen IT teams in local government entities that have created documentation that shows why they shouldn’t move to the cloud, which really comes down to not understanding or embracing change.
MeriTalk: Need – at least partly driven by the COVID-19 pandemic – has motivated state and local governments to move to the cloud over the last two years. Has recent cloud adoption broken down some of the barriers to cloud adoption?
Wicker: The pandemic has accelerated some things, but it’s slowed other things down. The adoption rate for cloud software tools that support user interactions, like Zoom or virtual desktops, is increasing. Projects such as refactoring an application for the cloud aren’t moving as fast because agencies don’t have the bandwidth. Many choose to maintain the status quo because of the pandemic or other mission-critical priorities. In my experience, the pandemic has slowed down capital projects by about 25 percent while accelerating user-based projects 50 to 100 percent.
Nanus: We are starting to see more of a shift, though, because the Federal government mandated IT infrastructure modernization. State agencies are looking into modernization now because it is being done at the Federal level.
MeriTalk: Complicating the move to the cloud further, all clouds are not alike. The hyperscalers all have specific strengths. For example, an organization might find that Google Cloud Platform is its preferred solution for application programming interfaces and data intake, Amazon Web Services is the right provider for data management, and Azure is best for enabling internal use of data. How do state and local governments navigate the maze of cloud providers?
Wicker: It’s a mixed bag right now. Agencies may be using an outside source to advise them, but they need to be careful about who they trust, as vendor bias comes into play. For example, if an agency uses a technology service provider that has a strong relationship with one hyperscaler, that service provider will recommend using that hyperscaler, regardless of if it is the best fit for the agency’s particular needs. Agencies also could have an existing relationship with a hyperscaler and will always go back to them because they are known. And some agencies don’t want to put all of their eggs in one basket, so they distribute their workloads across vendors. But it’s hard to have the in-house expertise they need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of every vendor. An unbiased cloud broker like Rackspace that works with all of the hyperscalers and understands their strengths can help state and local governments avoid the pitfalls that come with each of these scenarios.
MeriTalk: Of the 35 states responding to NASCIO’s survey, about 15 said they are using a cloud broker to help manage their cloud services. What is the role of the cloud broker, and how can state and local governments best leverage a broker to navigate the cloud landscape?
Wicker: There are two types of cloud brokers, and it is important to understand the difference. A cloud buyer broker does just what you would expect – it buys cloud. A cloud buyer broker understands the intricacies of each cloud vendor, can help an agency decide which vendor is right for them, and can negotiate the cloud buy.
A cloud advisor broker can do all of the same things that the cloud buyer broker can but also offers additional services to help agencies make the most of their cloud. Cloud advisor brokers can provide development services, advise on best practices, support cost optimization, and help with the migration to ensure it is successful. This is where Rackspace shines – we are a cloud advisor broker that can support agencies with everything related to their cloud needs.
Nanus: Cloud advisor brokers also help agencies maintain and manage their cloud services, which helps technology teams focus more on their missions. Because cloud advisor brokers are with agencies at every stage, we can also ensure the agencies are realizing the ongoing cost savings that can be achieved in the cloud. It’s kind of like building a car. You know all the parts of the car, and we know how they go together. Once we put it together, you can go drive it all day. If you want to install a new feature, bring it back and we’ll do that.
MeriTalk: How does Rackspace as a cloud advisor broker differ from other cloud brokers in supporting state and local governments?
Wicker: We meet you where you are in your cloud journey. There are layers to the cloud, including cloud infrastructure, network communication, operating systems, security, development, and applications. As a cloud advisor broker, we can step into any layer the agency needs us to, providing as much or a little support as needed. That’s vastly different than a typical cloud broker that just sells cloud. We also sell cloud, but we then provide the value-added advisory services to ensure agencies find success in the cloud. We do this through our Elastic Engineering services at a fixed cost, where agencies can tap into a pool of technology resources to design, build, secure, implement, and maintain their cloud. They use the services they need and don’t pay for any that they don’t.
Nanus: Another benefit of Elastic Engineering is that we’re not plugging in people that have not been involved with that agency previously. Rackspace resources that are assigned to a project or agency stay with that project or agency from beginning to end. We also enable state and local government entities to utilize cloud on their own. We are there as a trusted partner throughout the whole process, but we train the agency’s staff to be self-sufficient in the cloud.
MeriTalk: Can you share an example of a state or local government that has worked with Rackspace as a broker, and the results it has seen?
Wicker: We work with a state agency in Texas, where we immediately cut 10 percent off their cloud bills because we negotiated a new price with their cloud providers. We have since opened hundreds of optimization tickets in the past few months. We also worked through licensing issues with SQL, saving them 25 percent in the long term on those licenses. At another agency, we supported building a data transfer mechanism to get data from one cloud to another so the agency didn’t have to rebuild existing reporting tools.
Nanus: We give agencies the flexibility to engage us just a little if that’s what they need, or to or engage in a fully managed capacity.