Federal Networks Can’t Handle Planned IT Upgrades

Ambitious plans to improve federal information technology systems could easily founder on the shoals of deficient networks. Government agencies currently are striving to meet the challenges associated with initiatives in five major areas: cloud technology; Big Data management; cybersecurity requirements; data center consolidation; and, increasingly, mobile IT.

As agency IT personnel scramble to get on top of these challenges, there is a common thread linked to the success for each initiative: the networks forming the backbone for IT operations.

Federal agencies plan to fully embrace initiatives in those “Big Five” areas within the next two years — but government networks aren’t prepared for the additional capacity or complexity, which could result in significant network bottlenecks, according to a recent report issued by MeriTalk.

MeriTalk is a public-private partnership dealing with government IT issues. The report, which was underwritten by Brocade, was based on a survey of 204 federal IT professionals.

“These initiatives are here to stay, and they will vastly increase the traffic on legacy agency networks,” said Anthony Robbins, vice president for the federal sector at Brocade.

Among the report’s findings:

  • More than 80 percent of federal network managers saw major bottlenecks ahead as a result of implementing programs related to major IT initiatives.
  • Survey respondents expected their agencies’ total network load to increase by 79 percent as a result of pursuing those initiatives.
  • Nearly 60 percent of federal network managers said that if the Big Five programs were launched today, they would be at or over their network capacity.
  • Only 12 percent of federal network managers said their agency was completely prepared for infrastructure requirements of the five programs.

Mission-Critical Impact

“An agency’s enterprise network — machine to people, machine to machine, in the data center, and across the enterprise — is more critical than ever, whether operating in the U.S. or abroad. A future networking infrastructure capable of supporting the Big Five initiatives noted by MeriTalk is a foundational necessity for mission success,” Jill Tummler Singer, a partner at Deep Water Point, told the E-Commerce Times. Singer joined the firm in August after serving as chief information officer for the federal National Reconnaissance Office.

System overload can have consequences that vary from moderate to major breakdowns.

“Bottlenecks occur when data is being buffered or queued waiting for a path or port to become open for transport. These bottlenecks can be caused by oversaturated links, errors in line, and other anomalies,” Stephen Wallo, federal SE manager at Brocade, told the E-Commerce Times. “For the end user, this could mean slow Web pages, application crashes and other problems,” he said.

One of the most-cited initiatives — the use of cloud platforms — has presented something of a technological catch-22. Cloud platforms present the ability to meet demand almost without limit — the so-called “scale-up” advantage — but that feature is dependent on networks.

“Cloud scaling is one of the benefits the technology offers users. The issues arise in getting the data in and out of the cloud provider. If there are problems within the network, these could easily cause delays when trying to utilize other Infrastructure as a Service offerings,” Wallo said.

To overcome these challenges, network managers expect to transform almost half of their agency’s IT infrastructure over the next few years, but there is no guarantee that this transformation will go smoothly. Only 45 percent of agencies are using the budget process to prioritize and pace the implementation of each initiative, based on the MeriTalk survey.

Network Investment a Key Element

“Investments in networking infrastructure have been relatively sufficient to this point, and the ability of federal agencies to partner with global telecommunications providers has greatly enhanced the federal network footprint. We saw exponential federal network bandwidth increases following 9/11. The convergence of Big Data, cloud, mobility and other programs will require a second leap in our network capabilities to keep pace with mission and citizen demands,” said Deep Water Point’s Singer.

“Federal agencies can’t get from 10 gig to 100 gig without significant investment. Over the past few years, many recapitalization plans were elongated due to decreasing funds and competing priorities. Sequestration may negatively affect networking investments and exacerbate the trend of delayed recap,” she explained.

“Each agency CIO will make the necessary hard decisions on how best to balance the IT portfolio against a full set of demands. Seeking significant new funds for network initiatives, or just about any IT initiative, will be difficult over the next couple of years,” added Singer.

However, more funding isn’t necessarily the whole answer to improving networks.

“Better efficiencies through better visibility and open standards can have far-reaching benefits, regardless of whether there are investments in network, servers and other IT categories,” Wallo said.

Agencies should be wary of viewing increasing broadband as a silver bullet to solve problems. Improved monitoring of network performance — what Wallo calls “insight” into network operations — is extremely important in addressing deficiencies.

“Each agency is unique. However, if broadband can be used and leveraged in the architecture it is definitely something that should be considered as another tool to meet the specific agency requirement,” Wallo said.

The approach to investment “depends on the business model, the state of the architecture, and the plan put forth to address any goal or concerns,” he emphasized.

Management Upgrade Needed

Another issue revealed in the survey is the management of IT transformation. Only one-third of survey respondents said their agencies were engaged in efforts such as following a single standardized process for the implementation of all five initiatives, or having leaders meet regularly to coordinate actions. Many respondents indicated a preference for having all initiatives directed by a single senior-level manager.

“It’s probably easier for the CIO if management is centralized, but you can make rational decisions in both centralized and decentralized constructs. Strong agency governance, combined with an atmosphere of collaboration and cooperation, will lead to the best decisions on network utilization and investment,” said Singer.

Despite the deficiencies noted in the survey, agencies are not standing still. Most have begun to lay the groundwork for change. For example, 43 percent of network managers reported that they had taken steps to improve security measures, and 46 percent planned to do so. Most agencies have taken some steps to improve network policies, add bandwidth, increase openness, adhere to open standards and reduce network latency.

The Federal Buzz

Accenture Beefs Up: Accenture cited federal programs such as data center consolidation and the government’s Cloud First mandate as a factor in its decision to invest more than US$400 million in its Accenture Cloud Platform service by 2015.

The ACP offering provides a full spectrum of cloud support services and allows government agencies to choose a prepackaged, standardized format, resulting in faster implementation and lower costs, the company said. The upgraded service will be useful for the private cloud environments currently preferred by federal agencies as well as for public clouds.

“We will continue to see a strong embrace of private clouds in the mid-term, but organizations are also leveraging public clouds for workloads that make the most sense at this time for those environments — that is, public information with low or moderate security controls,” Chris Smith, chief technology and innovation officer for Accenture Federal Services, told the E-Commerce Times.

“ACP can be implemented on premise in a government-owned and -operated environment or in a public cloud, and provides a robust set of capabilities to run the business of IT for the organization and to improve service delivery on their respective missions,” he said.

Federal IT Award: The Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board has selected Science Applications International Corp. for a prime contract to provide the agency with a range of business process, information security and enterprise-wide information technology support services.

The single award has a potential value of approximately $224 million if all contract options are exercised.

John K. Higgins is a career business writer, with broad experience for a major publisher in a wide range of topics including energy, finance, environment and government policy. In his current freelance role, he reports mainly on government information technology issues for ECT News Network.

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