Federal Agencies Turn to Software-Defined Data Storage

Federal agencies seeking to deal with huge amounts of information have begun embracing the software-defined data center, a technology tool that has come into vogue for managing and storing data. The SDDC is an offshoot of IT virtualization that uses a software-defined architecture.

Agencies have been striving to save money and improve the management and storage of data in response to government mandates.

Agencies must “develop and report on data center strategies to consolidate inefficient infrastructure, optimize existing facilities, improve security posture, achieve cost savings, and transition to more efficient infrastructure, such as cloud services and inter-agency shared services,” states a federal CIO directive issued last summer.

The directive launched the Data Center Optimization Initiative to supersede and strengthen the federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative of 2010.

Federal IT Managers’ Feedback

With pressure from directives adding to the consistent requirements of tight budgets, federal agencies increasingly have turned to SDDCs, according to a survey of federal IT professionals released last month by Dell-EMC, which offers a variety of software solutions related to data management, including SDDC capabilities.

The survey participants — 100 federal IT managers — were polled by the Penn Schoen Berland research firm last spring, as a component of a larger Dell EMC global survey of IT trends.

Almost two-thirds of survey respondents said that their organizations had deployed software-defined solutions. Also, 85 percent of respondents reported progress in adopting the use of SDDCs.

Among other survey findings:

  • Fifty-six percent of federal employees reported being more than halfway done adopting an SDDC.
  • Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they were considering SDDCs to achieve greater agility and flexibility; 53 percent identified achieving additional efficiencies as an important factor in their decision making.
  • Forty-one percent were most interested in simplifying the management process, while 38 percent trained their sights primarily on reducing costs.

An important but perhaps subtle element for potential government adopters — as well as for commercial providers focused on marketing data center capabilities — is the agency attitude toward software-defined architecture. Federal IT managers regard several types of IT solutions as “software defined” resources, the survey found.

Of those solutions cloud technology was rated highest and was mentioned in 75 percent of survey responses. Other software-defined solutions included networking (52 percent), storage (52 percent), servers (48 percent) and converged infrastructure (40 percent).

Urgently Seeking New Solutions

For purposes of the survey — and potentially the market — “the establishment of SDDCs — defined here as a data center in which hardware components are virtualized, delivered as a service, and managed by software — was considered by survey respondents to be far more crucial to modernization than any other efforts,” Dell-EMC noted.

Much of the federal agency interest in SDDCs “has to do with the current state of IT in government,” said Steve Harris, general manager of Dell EMC Federal.

“Interest in SDDCs comes at a time when the conversation on IT modernization is at a boiling point,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“The cost of continuing to operate on legacy technology is too great — from a budget, efficiency and security standpoint — and the potential positive impact of digital transformation is poised to be significant. These factors will likely drive increased adoption of both SDDCs and cloud,” Harris said.

The urgency behind federal interest in SDDCs is somewhat at variance with the relatively slow federal response to cloud adoption, which took several years to get going after a mandate was launched in late 2010. However, now that cloud adoption is well under way in the federal sector, agencies may be more open to evolutionary developments such as SDDCs.

“Federal agencies are always looking to be secure, agile and innovative,” said Kapil Bakshi, distinguished engineer in Cisco’s Public Service unit.

“Therefore, they are adopting technologies that deliver mission and business capabilities that are vital to a CIO’s ability to support new services; manage compliance, governance [and] risk; and mitigate security threats,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “The next-generation data center rapidly and cost-effectively delivers applications that drive these mission and business outcomes.”

In fact, federal agencies may be a little ahead of the curve in pursuing SDDC options, since SDDCs and the software-defined phenomena are still in the early days of acceptance in terms of both development and market perception.

“Despite the growth in adoption and deployment of individual software-defined technologies and products, it is not yet the case that broad deployments of SDDCs themselves have become mainstream,” Gartner researchers John Morency and Scot MacLellan said last fall in a report on the firm’s survey of software-defined solutions, which included both business and government organizations.

Although software-defined products are important in the evolution of IT, “perceived SDDC maturity lags that of other technologies,” the Gartner report notes.

“Nonetheless, bottom-up deployment of specific technologies — such as software-defined networks, software-defined storage, and hyper-converged appliances — is continuing to accelerate,” Morency and MacLellan said. “These deployments are leading to measurable benefits in both improved operations agility and network infrastructure resilience, as reported by survey participants.”

Software-Defined Solutions Could Shift Market

For IT vendors, federal agency adoption of SDDC and other software-defined solutions will provide an attractive potential market. Major players — including Microsoft, Amazon Web Services, Dell, Cisco and VMWare, among others — have developed SDDC capabilities as part of broader efforts into the software-defined virtualization arena.

However, the packaging of offerings could bring some interesting integrations of various vendor capabilities. Depending on the deployment and the array of providers involved in software-defined solutions, vendor lock-in could be a factor for adopters, whether in the public or private sector, suggests a 2015 Gartner report.

“Software-defined isn’t so much a single product as it is an approach and a long-term strategy. Dell EMC works with, and alongside, major players in the space, as defined by our customers’ needs. VMware, for example, is part of the Dell Technologies family of companies and is one of our main partners in the move toward federal digital transformation,” Dell-EMC’s Harris said.

“Data centers need to be open, secure, automated, analytics-enabled and application-centric. Federal agencies also require that data centers support physical, virtual and containerized workloads, including hybrid cloud capabilities with consistent policy on and off premises,” Cisco’s Bakshi noted.

“In addition, federal agencies prefer a seamless policy-based approach to deploy infrastructure with application constructs in a hybrid cloud model. Until now, there has been no way to gain a single view of all the applications in a data center or cloud,” he said.

“Finally, a next-generation data center approach” is needed, suggested Bakshi, “and these requirements are the key reasons for federal agencies to review and support a revised data center and cloud strategy.”

John K. Higgins

John K. Higgins has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2009. His main areas of focus are U.S. government technology issues such as IT contracting, cybersecurity, privacy, cloud technology, big data and e-commerce regulation. As a freelance journalist and career business writer, he has written for numerous publications, includingThe Corps Report and Business Week.Email John.

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