Engineering in the Cloud

In the past, when someone at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) mentioned clouds, they most often were referring to the weather. However, in today’s modern context, “the cloud” can mean many things. At USACE’s Institute for Water Resources (IWR), it most often describes the Civil Works Business Intelligence (CWBI) program. CWBI has been a USACE leader in cloud implementation over the past 10 years, and continues to refactor Civil Works data and system assets to gain efficiencies, integrate resources, and reduce information technology (IT) maintenance and cost.

The CWBI program is one of USACE’s key automated information systems (AIS) and is a critical backbone to the Civil Works mission. “CWBI touches almost every aspect of the Civil Works mission as it relates to data and information delivery,” said Edward E. Belk Jr., director of Civil Works.

“We rely on the cloud infrastructure, cybersecurity implementation, and system engineering services CWBI provides to ensure critical data and analysis mission requirements are met.” CWBI’s current purpose is to integrate Civil Works data in a cloud-smart environment that standardizes data organization and management, ensures cybersecurity, delivers innovative technology solutions, rationalizes resources, and enhances visualization. CWBI currently supports more than 100 Civil Works applications across the USACE enterprise, and is used widely by internal and external stakeholders. CWBI partners with multiple entities within USACE, federal partners, and others to deliver data and resources where it is needed most. For example, CWBI’s cloud infrastructure serves as the backbone to help regulatory permits be issued, the public understand where levees and dams are located, and to deliver navigation charts to vessel operators traversing inland waterways. CWBI is led by a small program management office overseen by IWR and the USACE Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab’s Remote-Sensing and Geographic Information System (GIS) Center of Expertise. “As the first production cloud operating environment within USACE, CWBI has transitioned stand- alone applications to a cloud environment [with] levels of computational capacity, data management, data interconnectivity, and cybersecurity that were unattainable only a few years ago,” stated Joe Manous, Ph.D., IWR director. “These accomplishments are why the CWBI team was recognized as the IWR 2022 Team of the Year.”

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CWBI leverages the cloud in benefit of the Civil Works mission to deliver critical products to decision-makers and the public. For example, CWBI is responsible for providing a common resource in the cloud to collect data for Civil Works operation and maintenance (O&M) activities. CWBI then couples the O&M information with financial details from other USACE AIS to help report program status, performance metrics, and compliance with legislation and regulation. “CWBI plays a vital role in the hydropower business line’s understanding of the operational performance of its generating assets,” said David Sanna, USACE Hydropower Digital Transformation lead. “Hydropower has worked directly with the CWBI team to develop and deploy a new hydropower homepage within the CWBI platform, which establishes a central hub for communication, data-reporting, and visualization of key performance metrics across the business line. Building on this foundation, the hydropower business line is engaging with CWBI on further development to track additional data sources and enhance the analytical tools available to its users.” In addition to hydropower, CWBI is also supporting other Civil Works O&M business lines. For example, the USACE Natural Resources Management (NRM) program supports all USACE missions while having the unique assignment to manage and protect more than 260 million public visitors annually at more than 400 lakes and approximately 5,000 parks in 43 states. “Efficiencies of managing the natural, cultural, environmental, and recreation come from understanding the inventory, performance, benefits and resources for each project,” said Jeffrey Krause, Natural Resources Management chief. “Moving the data from multiple databases and platforms to CWBI provides a one-stop entry and reporting tool to maximize use of resources, improve public safety, and quickly show leaders and the public the benefits the NRM program offers to the nation.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Civil Works Business Intelligence (CWBI) logo, representing the integration of data with various components of the USACE Civil Works mission, including navigation, surveying, and hydropower. CWBI is a USACE-shared capability between a couple of the enterprise support centers, to include the Institute for Water Resources’ National Data Center, and the Engineering Research and Development Center Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab.

CWBI also utilizes the cloud to innovate. When a new solution is necessary to support Civil Works, CWBI employs software as a service (SaaS), serverless technology, or containerized delivery using an agile approach instead of traditional servers, stand-alone software packages, and databases that require significant maintenance and attention. “We cannot afford to just lift and shift assets to the cloud without any changes,” said Lyle Seethaler, CWBI technical lead. “CWBI helps data and system owners evaluate their requirements so they can be properly configured and take advantage of the various components a cloud environment offers.” Furthermore, CWBI utilizes cloud IT resources to scale assets as requirements change, and share engineering and cybersecurity resources to help the USACE Civil Works mission save money. If each Civil Works application were to pay for its own cloud environment, then the annual cost to support these initiatives would be exponentially greater. CWBI has worked to methodically migrate Civil Works applications year by year to the cloud. It has taken time, but refactoring applications to gain benefit from cloud-native solutions allows for cost-savings, elasticity, and flexibility. Each Civil Works application is often different, so re-architecting to modify software and codebase allows for cloud- based features to be incorporated and utilized. CWBI also serves as a rationalizer, ensuring data is integrated and applications are amalgamated where possible.

Now that so many Civil Works assets have migrated to the cloud, CWBI is proactively focusing on the data elements that reside there to ensure they are visible, accessible, understandable, linked, trustworthy, interoperable, and secure (VAULTIS). “To achieve USACE’s vision of becoming va data-driven enterprise and leveraging the data insights to make better informed decisions requires all its mission and business areas to come together and develop standardized, automated, and repeatable processes addressing data governance, access, quality,” said Walton Cheung, USACE chief data officer. “CWBI is contributing to the “USACE Enterprise Data Strategy” goals and objectives by leaning into the VAULTIS principles. This transformation is incremental, and I appreciate CWBI partnering with me to achieve this vision on our journey together.” Additionally, to take advantage of artificial intelligence and machine learning, CWBI must be aligned with VAULTIS principles so that outputs are meaningful. “The adage of ‘garbage in, garbage out’ rings true,” said Will Breitkreutz, CWBI technical lead. “How can you expect to take advantage of automation if your data is not accurate or well documented? You cannot. Therefore, CWBI’s role in data management in the cloud and implementing a clear strategy is necessary for the USACE Civil Works mission to be successful.”

This year, the CWBI program is focused on maintaining its core services, data-focused delivery, fulfilling modernization assignments, and supporting the Civil Works modules hosted within its cloud environment. For example, the program is actively developing a new “Corps Project Notebook” application to help the USACE enterprise report and track project locations in a standardized format using a common geospatial solution set that is aligned with defined USACE regulation. Furthermore, CWBI is expanding its geospatial capability with the deployment of a new GIS environment that takes advantage of cloud-native setup and will deliver mission needs internally as well as to the public. The new environment will be more robust than previous iterations, and standardize multiple GIS processes.

Engineering in the cloud has allowed CWBI to deliver an easy-to-use, flexible, cost-effective, reliable, scalable, innovative, and secure system. CWBI’s cloud environment is capable of automation, mobility, and integration. It will continue to take effort and resources to maintain, but the impression of what a cloud means to the USACE Civil Works mission has changed.


To learn more about the CWBI program and its cloud engineering efforts, please contact the USACE Institute for Water Resources at IWR@usace.army.mil.


This article is featured in the 2023-2024 edition of America’s Engineers: The People, Programs, and Projects of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

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