Homeland Security Adopts Agile, Cloud to Improve Efficiency

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The US Department of Homeland Security is embracing agile development and moving to cloud platforms in an effort to speed up its IT operations—and, ultimately, to reduce their costs.

At a hearing before the House Committee on Homeland Security on Tuesday, DHS Deputy Chief Information Officer Margaret Graves said the department transitioned to agile last year. The concentration has been on user involvement, with customers giving suggestions for workflow, the system’s capabilities, and what they would like to see.

These users are developing along with the developers, said Graves. They are sitting with the developer, they are talking through use cases, they are testing at appropriate times.

This gives instant feedback, "which is continuously incorporated into the development cycle," Graves said.

The agile method has gained a following in federal agencies in the last few years. At a conference in May 2012, DHS Chief Information Officer Richard Spires praised agile development and listed some of its advantages.

I am very big on agile or modular development, said Spires, who did not testify at Tuesday’s hearing. He elaborated, saying that it lowers risk and delivers capabilities in an incremental fashion. Agile is proven and many people are using it.

Sanjiv Augustine, president of LitheSpeed, an agile consulting firm in Washington, DC, told Computerworld earlier this year that the federal government’s budget shortfalls are pushing adoption of agile.

In the same way that private businesses have adopted the method because they were "in search of faster delivery and better results," Augustine said, "it appears that looming budget problems are beginning to have the same catalytic effect in the public sector."

So far this year, DHS has budgeted about $4 billion for sixty-eight major IT operations. The Government Accountability Office identified twenty-one of those programs—accounting for roughly $1 billion—as falling behind or going over cost. DHS Deputy Inspector General Charles Edwards said IT spending makes up about 15 percent of the agency's budget.

However, David Powner, director of IT management initiatives at the Government Accountability Office, says he sees signs of progress in the department. That includes a move to a cloud-computing environment.

Graves said the DHS is condensing forty-two data centers into two and at this point has consolidated eighteen of them. It is establishing cloud services, platform-as-a-service, and software-as-a-service. One significant cost-saving measure is switching to cloud-based email, which costs seven dollars per user compared to twenty-four dollars per user, Graves said.

"These are really quantifiable savings that we have to talk about," she said. "And we have twelve of these enterprise cloud services, each one of which has a story attached to it."

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Beth Romanik

A recovering print journalist, Beth Romanik is now a writer and editor for TechWell, StickyMinds, and Better Software magazine. She has worked for several other newspapers, magazines, and websites. Beth is excited about new gadgets and developments in technology, but she'll always have a soft spot for paper and ink.