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DHS shifting to cloud, agile development to boost homeland security

Along with its transition to agile, the department is establishing cloud services, platform-as-a-service and software-as-a-service

March 20, 2013 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has moved to agile development and is shifting to cloud platforms in an effort to improve its IT operations.

At a hearing before the House Committee on Homeland Security on Tuesday, a DHS IT official gave lawmakers an overview of agile development methodologies, one of the tools that the department is using to fix its IT project management.

Agile came up after U.S. Rep Ron Barber (D-Ariz.), a former staffer in Rep. Gabrielle Gifford's office who won that seat after Giffords resigned, asked what DHS was doing to ensure that its IT systems met user needs.

Margaret Graves, DHS deputy CIO, said the department is using agile methodologies to create user stories to help shape the systems. In agile development, user stories can be short and informal descriptions of some of the functions users 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," she said.

What this is accomplishing is providing immediate feedback, "which is continuously incorporated into the development cycle," said Graves.

DHS transitioned to agile last year, according to Graves' testimony.

The intent of the hearing was to look at the progress of some of the department's IT projects. Approximately 15% of the department's budget, or about $6 billion, is spent on IT.

Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) cited reports by the Government Accountability Office (GAO_ and DHS Inspector General that found fault with some of department's IT spending. Of the department's 68 major IT investments, about a third had not met their cost or target dates.

Duncan was "disappointed" that DHS CIO Richard Spires was unable to testify. "Mr. Spires has been outspoken on improving IT at DHS and ensuring transparency and meaningful oversight," he said.

Despite the criticism of Spires as a no-show, David Powner, director of IT technology management issues at the GAO, who also testified, said of Spires that "our government is fortunate to have his service" and he believed the agency was trending in the right direction.

That direction includes a shift to cloud platforms.

Graves said the DHS is consolidating 42 data centers into two, and has consolidated 18 data centers at this point. As part of this effort, it is establishing cloud services, platform-as-a-service and software-as-a-service, including moving its email system to a cloud platform.

With cloud-based systems, the cost per email box will be about $7 for each user, which Graves said is a substantial savings. At the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is part of DHS, they spent about $24 per user, she said.

covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at Twitter @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed Thibodeau RSS. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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