What You Missed at AWS Public Sector Summit 2016

Rachel Dines
Sr. Director of Product Marketing


AWS Public Sector Summit

I’m on my way home from my very first AWS Public Sector Summit. The event, while light on new products and enhancements (unlike Chicago Summit a few months ago), was crammed full of incredible customer stories and use cases. The event lasted 2 days, boasted more than 70 sessions and 7,000 attendees. Here are some of my key takeaways.

Women in Tech Rule

AWS Keynote SpeakersDay 1 began with a bang—four amazing keynotes, all from women. Teresa Carlson, Vice President, Worldwide Public Sector at AWS, hosted the event, giving the first keynote. She gave an overview of GovCloud’s growth—an impressive 221% since first brought to market in 2011. She also announced the only news of the day: a new competency in GovCloud for both consulting and technology partners. 

What followed was a stellar lineup of keynotes, including Deborah Brooks, Co-founder and Executive Vice Chairman of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research who discussed how the foundation uses AWS to aid their research; to Stephanie Von Friedburg, CIO World Bank Group who reminisced about what it was like to adopt AWS four years ago when no other government agencies or major banks were using the service. Since then, their deployment has matured and grown rapidly—Von Friedburg mentioned that while they originally adopted AWS for agility and cost savings, they found an unexpected benefit in the resiliency and security the cloud brought, especially as they operated in environmentally or politically unstable locations. 

Ultimately, to me, the star of the morning was LaVerne Council, the Assistant Secretary for IT and CIO for the Department of Veteran Affairs (what a title, right?). Council described her approach to updating the VA’s outdated IT, saying that she pushed her staff to put themselves in the veteran’s shoes to drive a faster and better solution with the best possible end-user experience. “We do not need another application, we need a new experience” she said. Under Council and using AWS, the team at the VA shortened their development cycle from 6 months down to 3 months, reduced overhead by 80%, and consolidated onto 1 change calendar and 1 release calendar, versus the 60 previous ones. 


Good process is the key to great technology

-LaVerne Council, Assistant Secretary
for IT and CIO for the Department of Veteran Affairs


Women in Tech PanelKudos to AWS for putting together such a stellar lineup, and for hosting the women in technology panel later in the day. As Carlson said, “once we started looking for women leaders in technology to give the keynotes, it really wasn’t that hard.” I hope to see other vendors do the same at their events.

Serverless Computing is the Hot Trend

One topic that definitely had a lot of buzz was serverless computing. Obviously, even in a serverless architecture there are servers involved, but the end user does not interact with them directly. Ben Snively from AWS explained it well when he described one of the fundamental differences in the serverless architectures is the unit of measure. In a VM-based architecture, the unit of measure is the VM or instance. In a container-based architecture, the application is the unit of scale. In a serverless architecture, the business logic, or function, is the unit of measure.

There are a lot of potential applications for serverless architectures: Snively called out a few, including data processing in S3, building a scalable backend, or building web apps with both dynamic and static content. Mike Jensen, the Director of Engineering for the Democratic National Convention (DNC) then took the stage to discuss how they have overhauled several of their critical services using serverless architectures on AWS (i.e., Lambda). Because of the unpredictable traffic spikes the DNC sees, serverless architectures have given them the ability to build rapidly scaling web apps by breaking down each service into a Lambda function that executes based on event triggers.


We only get one chance at election day, so services we build have to be available all the time.

- Mike Jensen, Director of Engineering
for the Democratic National Convention


I’m not the only who who thinks serverless architectures are the next big thing. In his fireside chat, Andy Jassy said that he sees customers with smaller and smaller units of compute (BTW, Lambda is sold by the microsecond and charged by the microcent).



New products will be built by services, not servers.

– Andy Jassy, CEO of Amazon Web Services


You Don’t Need to be a Startup to go “All-In”

When you think of companies going “all-in” on AWS, you think mainly of born in the cloud companies like Netflix or avant-garde tech companies like Intuit. But believe it or not, there are a LOT of public sector organizations, large and small, going “all-in” on AWS. In her morning keynote, Carlson dropped a few names—the Financial Conduct Authority in the UK, the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago, the SEC, and FINRA. Later in the day, we got to hear the stories from three other organizations going all in – the City of Plano in Texas, National Democratic Institute, and Harvard Business School’s HBX. Here are some of the key takeaways from these public sector innovators:

  • The biggest challenge is a cultural one, not a technical one. Chris Chiancone, CIO, City of Plano explained that at first they struggled with getting the staff onboard with the idea of going “all-in” on AWS. Many were worried that their jobs were going away. Ultimately, the Chiancone was able to get the team onboard with the changes when they discovered they would have more time to do what they liked best: be a technologist.


CIOs care about increased productivity. Staffers care about increased Innovation. The cloud gives you both: building a petri dish for innovation while also improving the bottom line.

- Chris Chiancone, CIO, City of Plano


  • Choose your migration strategy wisely. There are many different approaches you can take when migrating to the cloud for an “all-in” architecture-- lift and shift, rewrite applications, starting with test and development or with backup and DR. While many choose the path that is most interesting to them from a technical perspective, Ryan Frazier, Director, Systems Engineering and Operations, HBS/HBX, advises to choose the path that maps to your organization’s culture. Mapping the strategy to the culture, he advised, delivers a smoother transition to the cloud. Like Chiancone, Frazier cited culture as one of the main barriers, even after their CIO announced the goal moving 100% of all new applications and 75% of all existing applications to the cloud over the next three years.
  • Track and measure your results. Demonstrating success with real, hard numbers is one of the most important things you can do during a migration. That means baselining your existing cost, performance, and capability so you can track progress. For example, Chiancone calculated that by migrating to the cloud, their ROI, year 1 was 30%, year 2 40%, year 3 was 50%, taking into consideration both capex and opex. Another agency that is “all-in” on AWS, FINRA, has saved over $20M and counting. While simply migrating to the cloud can lead to big cost reductions, it’s crucial to focus on continuous optimization once in the cloud. Frazier started an optimization campaign at HBX, looking for oversized instances, unused volumes, and overprovisioned IOPS, and was able to reduce costs an additional 27% over 3 months. Time savings and agility boosts are another metric customers tracked to show success—at the GSA, the team went from taking 3-6 months just to deploy a VM in the data center, down to 18 minutes to deploy a full application stack in the cloud. Bob Tucker, DevOps Manager at Change.org, said that his goal is for all tasks to take no longer than 5 minutes to execute in AWS. Since migrating production to AWS, most tasks can hit his benchmark, he said, although some “legacy” applications can take as long as 16 minutes, a number he is working to shorten.


Cost optimization is not about saving, it’s about delivering more to the business at the same price point.

- Bob Tucker, DevOps Manager at Change.org


Final Thoughts

Mike Jensen TalkWhen Andy Jassy held his fireside chat on Day 2, he said one thing that really stuck with me: “Most of the big tech companies are competitor focused. Some are product focused. AWS is customer focused.” He went on to say that they are so customer focused, that they make recommendations that help customers reduce their AWS spend by over $350M every year (which explains why AWS has so readily partnered with companies like CloudHealth Technologies who help customers cut their AWS spend by 10-20% per month). This is because they don’t want to make money on services that customers aren’t getting value from. He also mentioned that 90% of their roadmap is driven by customer enhancement requests. This customer-centric sentiment was certainly reflected in this event more than any other AWS Summit I’ve attended—almost every single session featured a customer speaker describing how they were using different AWS features and what benefits they saw from them. If you’ve been looking for a sign that public cloud is mainstream, you know you’ve found it when you see public sector organizations and agencies that are hundreds of years old adapting and evolving to cloud-first strategies.

AWS public sector

“Most of the big tech companies are competitor focused. Some are product focused. AWS is customer focused.”