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The Big Interview: US Army CIO Dr Raj Iyer gets tough amid DX shakeup

He joins The Stack to talk BYOD, cloud costs and more.

US Army CIO Dr Raj Iyer is rolling out virtual desktop environments across the Army, a move that will let users move away from (in his own words) “clunky, ageing, not the best” laptops dished out across the military and start using their own devices securely — uniquely, without the need for an intrusive “agent” on the BYOD devices. The move is in a phase two pilot with 30,000 users and he hopes to roll it out across the entire Army by the end of 2022. Approached by The Stack on social media about the decision, his response is emblematic of the transparency and responsiveness he’s trying to inculcate across the Army; he shares his email address swiftly and we set up a call in which he’s frank about the decision, the technology and the rationale for the move.

Appointed as the Army’s first civilian CIO in 2020, Dr Iyer oversees a $16 billion annual IT budget and a sprawling set of networks. A slide from a recent presentation of his captures the scale: 2,370 systems and applications running on-premises; 40,000+ different analytics products; 1.4 million users; 150 system interfaces for the Army’s 72,000-strong digital workforce; $1.5 billion in annual hardware costs and nearly double that for software. As US Army CIO his mandate is extensive but also boils down to a small handful of key focal areas that would be familiar to CIOs in any large organisation: use money much more efficiently; target joined-up thinking around data; sunset legacy technology that’s holding back innovation and start transforming a culture that can be painfully slow to get sh*t done in world in which technology – and increasingly adversaries – are moving very fast indeed.

US Army CIO Dr Raj Iyer sat down with The Stack to talk Digital Transformation priorities, lessons from ERP migrations, cutting cloud costs, what the “I” in “CIO” should stand for, and having green thumbs.

To step back: The US Army Modernization Strategy identifies digital transformation as a means to achieve what it describes as “Waypoint 2028”. This is a point at which the Army will “comprehensively reassess the assumptions about future warfare and adjust its investments accordingly”. And the Army is not, its CIO emphasises, going to get there simply by buying new technology; some serious cultural and organisational shifts will be needed too.

Raj Iyer – who started his career in the early ‘90s developing complex algorithms for F-16 flight simulation applications – drives home to The Stack that his job is not just a technology one. As he puts wryly: “If it takes us two years to write a requirements document, and then it takes us another two years to go on contract, and then it takes another five years to build the technology, [that’s failing to] keep up with the changing pace of technology. It’s really important that we go after these [bureaucratic] institutional processes and policies...”

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It’s a point his office drummed home in its first Army Digital Transformation Strategy; published in October 2021.

Commercial organisations are finding “lower cost, more efficient, and innovative ways to run and invest in their enterprises” the strategy says pointedly. Current challenges for Army digital leaders, meanwhile, it notes, “include limited visibility into Army IT portfolios, inflexible and waterfall IT acquisition processes, and ineffective IT investment accountability and oversight... these challenges prevent the Army from ensuring its resources and spending are best aligned to save costs, improve operations, and ultimately harvest these savings to modernize the Army through digital transformation... purchasing power is currently underutilized because of the decentralized approach to procuring IT software, hardware, and services” Something clearly needs to change.

Many efforts have already begun both. These include the successful cloud migrations of three of the Army’s main ERP systems. The last, which he expects to take place in 2022, is the Army's "Global Combat Support System" (GCSS). (Earlier procurement efforts show that the Army is turning to industry for a prototype capable of letting this fulfil "mission critical functions in a disconnected, intermittent, and limited bandwidth operational environment" like a battlefield for for up to seven continuous days, with the ability to synchronise the it data collected while offline.)

Among the migrations in 2021 was that of the huge SAP-based Logistics Modernization Program “LMP” from on-premises servers to a hyperscaler environment in a 24-hour operation: no mean feat.

The LMP, used by over 23,000 people across 50 global locations, is the ERP system that underpins the Army’s supply chain — one of the largest in the world — hosting data on equipment readiness, asset management, arms depots, and more. The system manages seven million transactions daily and is integrated with more than 80 DOD systems. It has been described as the Army’s “core logistics IT initiative”. Speaking about this, US Army CIO Dr Raj Iyer suggested to The Stack that whilst pleased with that move, there were optimisations he’d still like to see.

US Army CIO: We're working on cloud cost optimisation...

He said: “This is an area where we're obviously learning. We could have done a much better job, if we had architected things a little better. I think we took an approach, where we said, ‘hey, let's try to move it to the cloud; let's optimise it a little bit’ but we didn't completely re-architect it. And one of the things we should be aware of is how much time do you want to spend re-architecting these large systems?” he muses.

“This was several months of effort that went into looking at the data, the interfaces; working with our stakeholders, making sure functional users understood what the implications were – and then working very closely with our system integrators, contractors, and our hyperscalers. So it truly was a massive effort [and] there have been some some intangible [outcomes] in migrating to the cloud. One, obviously, was greater resiliency, and performance from the system, which had been built over 20 years ago; we saw some immediate improvements moving to the cloud from a performance perspective and reliability perspective. What we also saw were some cost savings, not huge, but significant enough to say that there was some return on investment.”

It's not quite the glowing endorsement some might have suspected but he paints a picture of continual institutional learning as major software projects like this are consolidated into environments in which improved visibility should lead to more optimisation as visibility improves. The Army is learning that cloud cost optimisation is a fine art in itself and that lack of visibility into usage patterns of existing systems meant early optimisation was hard, he suggests, saying: “We’re working through cloud cost optimization; we have a software that we just deployed to start looking at our footprint in each of the [hyperscaler] cloud environments to look at how we optimise the costs, because we certainly feel like [we were not able initially to accurately] spin up and spin down compute and storage in order to be able to save some money, rather than just count on reserved instances – which is what the Army initially did -- because we just didn't have any enough data.

"But I think there's tremendous potential there.”

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Paratroopers assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division mobilize on Joint Base Charleston, S.C. August 14, 2021. The 82nd Abn. Div. rapidly deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operations Allies Refuge. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Vincent Levelev

Such heavy enterprise system lifting aside, the user front-end is a passion of the US Army CIO.

He told us: "A huge change that I'm pushing across the Army right now is the user experience.

"Oftentimes this is considered an afterthought when we look at the requirements from the perspective of a function, or a process, or a policy. What seems to be missing is 'how is the user going to interact with the system?' And 'how can we make this really easy for them?' It's the same thing with cybersecurity as well," he adds.

"Cybersecurity processes can be very bureaucratic and very much compliance-based. We really want to get to looking at it from a risk lens [and] adjusting to the changing threat landscape, which is very dynamic. Our processes [need to] adjust and react in such a way to align with [this landscape]. That requires work."

US Army virtual desktops: Virtual Mobile Infrastructure a "game-changer"

On the UX front one of the clearest shifts has been his push to roll out virtual desktops and with them, the ability for users to bring their own device. The approach has been tried in the past but this time, technology has caught up, he says, adding: "One of the things I was very careful about right from the get go was to make sure [that] if we were going to get ask our users to bring their personal devices we address any privacy concerns that they had. Most of the BYOD-type solutions require the organisation, the company or the government, to monitor your personal device; they have to put some kind of agent on your device that tracks what you're doing to be able to remotely wipe your device. And in some cases if there's some kind of a classified spillage, there was always a potential that the government would actually confiscate your device," the US Army CIO notes.

"It was very clear talking to our users that [this] was an absolute no-no: if that was the ground rules under which we would allow them to bring their own device, there was strong pushback. "hat's unique about our solution that we're architecting and building right now is that it's a completely unmanaged device option. The technology that we're using is called virtual mobile infrastructure... which basically means that you have a version of an accredited image of your mobile desktop in the cloud, that you can access through any device: there is no data that's stored on your device; all that's being exchanged back and forth are display pixels... and all of the data is stored in the cloud in a fully accredited environment that's encrypted. We think this is a game changer. It's commercially available technology; we have done some assessments of the cybersecurity posture, and it's really good. So we just need to continue to make sure we harden it and make sure it works for us."

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Will the Army's million-plus users get this? "Ideally everybody will have something that makes their job easier. But we have to balance that against licencing costs; how often they need it, and what they need access to. Web conferencing, or chatting, or document collaboration are all different use cases we're looking at; then there's also the higher end business users that are doing more sophisticated engineering, science and technology, contracting, logistics, training [work]. We have to look at all of the use cases: the pilots that we're on right now, will help us inform what that looks like for us." Meanwhile there are bigger picture issues to start tackling too; not least the scale of the institutional changes that need to happen to make procurement more agile.

What's his approach here? "Bite off a little bit at a time" he responds.

"I can tell you, for a large bureaucracy such as ours, trying to eat the elephant in one bite is just not going to be the solution. So, [priority] one is creating awareness; making sure that the people that own these processes are the ones that are actually innovating and making the changes to those processes.

"The last thing you want is for the CIO to come in and say, 'hey, the HR enterprise, and how we do human capital management and talent management has to change!' We want to make sure we are influencing how those processes are done in future. But it's important that the people that own the talent, and the HR processes are the ones that make those changes. It's the same with acquisition and contracting, given how long it takes for us to go out on contract with some very rigid set of requirements, because that's what we're used to doing in the army. How do we change that mindset to say, 'okay, let's define a broad set of requirements, and then let industry come in and tell us what they can deliver, how quickly they can delive, and how that can be incrementally done to keep up with the changing pace of technology' -- because what we found is even when we spend a lot of money to go procure new things they become out of date almost very quickly, because this mindset of continuous modernisation is not built into that framework. So understanding that I think is important."

"The 'I' in the CIO is for inspiration, right?" he says rhetorically.

"If I can inspire at least one person every day to do something different and they become agents of change, that's the factorial effect. I just need to make sure that we create this ground-up approach to realising that if you are a knowledge worker in the Army, you don't have to sit and complain about your technology; your CIO is here to empower you to help make the change, I'm empowering you to find a solution and empowering you to come seek solutions. That's the reason why I get involved actively over LinkedIn and social media: because the best solutions come from our workforce. They know the problem, but they also know the answer. And if you engage with them, and you put them first, it's amazing how many great answers you can find."

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