JAG’s grueling but successful journey to Cloud First
Virginia Beach, VA (July, 2023) –
In 2017, new information technology (IT) leaders for the U.S. Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG) realized their organization didn’t have a well-developed IT infrastructure to support mission requirements. In addition, they needed to enable growth by creating a new public-facing website, as well as handle booming workloads in case management, claims and legal support for commanders and Sailors around the world. Taking heed of the Department of the Navy’s Cloud First direction, they commenced a five-year, $14.3 million journey to a cloud-based digital transformation.
There were plenty of challenges along the way, but the solutions are now live after earning an Authority to Operate (ATO) for a production cloud enclave — the first-such system at Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), the Navy’s largest systems command.
The JAG Corps team’s experience offers perspectives that can help other commands overcome barriers and see the benefits of cloud computing. Right from the start, there were three big challenges: funding, skillsets and risk management framework (RMF) compliance.
Challenge #1: Funding
The Cloud First mandate did not come with funding. So, the JAG Corps IT team developed a business case to show the value of the new applications, independent of them being in the cloud. While cloud applications have huge benefits in flexibility and extensibility, they are not less expensive to develop, thus the $14 million price tag. As happens with many multi-year projects, portions of the budget disappeared in one annual budget squeeze and had to be re-won. Fortunately, this initiative had a high-level champion who helped ensure continuous support. The lesson for others is to start as soon as possible and build a case around the capabilities of the application, not simply its cloud-ness.
Challenge #2: Skillsets
Once a project is committed, teams are needed that have deep expertise in getting the most from the cloud, including architecture, roadmap, RMF, project management and hosting.
Recently retired Navy Capt. Matthew Beran, who previously served as JAG Corps’ division director of IT, said, “Going into it, we had little idea of the manpower and skillsets required to handle this.”
Outside contractors fill many of the gaps, but the internal skillsets will also have to grow or evolve as the project progresses. When looking for a development partner, ensure there is alignment on the extent of needs, whether it’s for staff augmentation, primary development, ongoing hosting or operations.
Challenge #3: RMF compliance
When any new application is created within the Department of Defense (DoD), it has to pass through a rigorous set of standards for compliance with the RMF. While the frameworks have been around for years, the bar for proof of compliance has been raised and the approval processes have become more stringent. Best practices are to plan and check for RMF compliance in every step of the development process, from concept to requirements planning, scoping, testing and deployment.
“RMF compliance and ATO are Byzantine processes I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy,” Beran said.
But things are getting better. Cloud migration teams should look for the new modeling tools and workflows that developers and cloud brokerages are creating to automate and streamline processes.
Tips for DoD Migrations
Tip #1: Structure for growth.
The JAG Corps team was an early cloud adopter and has paved the way for future growth. They have created a versatile and scalable enclave that can easily accommodate new applications. They can swiftly scale their new applications without adding new infrastructure. The environment means the JAG Corps team can experiment, innovate and expand their offerings with agility, while minimizing upfront costs and reducing deployment time.
Tip #2: Optimize for global deployment.
By centralizing data, applications and resources in the cloud, the JAG Corps team established a unified platform accessible to commanders, legal staff and Sailors across the globe. This enables streamlined collaboration, real-time information sharing and standardized workflows, while eliminating geographical barriers and ensuring consistent processes throughout the command. They expect their new global ecosystem to foster collaboration, standardization and innovation, resulting in increased productivity, cost savings and better service to their stakeholders.
“We’re positioned to add new ways of providing legal services and support to the fleet in the future, and the cloud gives us a force multiplier with the flexibility to pivot and redeploy resources as needed,” Beran said.
Tip #3: Have the right plan.
A flexible plan for cloud migration is essential for creating initial value while laying the foundation for future growth. The JAG Corps team created a plan with enough flexibility to prioritize workloads, assess risks and allocate resources.
“We evolved and matured our plan, ending with a much larger migration than our original scope. Now, we have the equivalent of an entire building structure that we can add to, floor-by-floor,” Beran explained.
Reflecting on the overall project, Beran’s final takeaway is that leaders must be ready for a long process to go from initial concept through to ATO.
“We couldn’t help but see the parallels to Adm. Nimitz’s Pacific campaign, slogging island-by-island, from Midway all the way to Okinawa,” he said. “You need to have persistence and grit; you just can’t stop.”
Tracy Gregorio is a model-based systems engineering and security engineering solutions expert and provides contractor support to the Naval Sea Systems Command.
Retired Navy Capt. Matthew Beran previously served as the division director for Technology, Operations and Plans at the Office of the Judge Advocate General. The opinions and assertions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United States Government, the Department of Defense or the Department of the Navy.
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