Federal agencies have begun using an emerging information technology tool to manage the huge amount of data the United States government generates and stores. Federal IT managers recently have embraced the concept of convergence, which has been gaining traction in the private sector. Agencies also have indicated that the approach may be useful for other federal IT applications.
Spurred by several rounds of IT reform directives from the U.S. Congress and the White House Office of Management and Budget, agencies have begun seeking innovative methods to improve data storage. These efforts include shedding outdated legacy technologies in favor of more efficient and effective IT upgrades.
Converged systems have moved into the top echelon of these innovative options, according to a recent report from MeriTalk. Just over 70 percent of federal IT managers surveyed believed converged infrastructures would become the central housing mechanism for data center needs.
“As agencies hit a crossroads of multiple mandates and legislative initiatives to reduce legacy systems, the conversation on optimization is moving to the next level,” said Steve O’Keeffe, founder of MeriTalk.
“Converged infrastructure is the next step and gives agencies a way to meet the requirements of multiple mandates while saving money and modernizing federal IT systems,” he said.
Providers Boost Trend
Vendors serving the federal market that have observed the convergence trend have been encouraging agencies to embrace the concept.
IT convergence requires integrating various components of the data management chain. For the MeriTalk study, “we defined ‘converged’ as a multivendor solution consisting of, at a minimum, servers, storage, networking and management layers managed through a single pane of glass,” said Milo Speranzo, director of strategy and compliance at Tech Data.
That definition is consistent with the scope of elements in IDC’s description of converged solutions: “pre-integrated, vendor-certified systems containing server hardware, disk storage systems, networking equipment, and basic element and systems management software.”
In addition to meeting federal IT mandates, agencies recently have become motivated to seek improved data management technologies simply due to the enormity of the task.
Seventy-three percent of survey respondents said that workloads had increased over the last three years, MeriTalk reported. Data volume increased substantially during that time frame, nearly 80 percent of respondents said. Almost 75 percent of respondents reported that user volume also had grown. Almost 60 percent of federal IT managers said their agencies were struggling to keep up with such workloads.
The report, which was based on a survey of 150 federal IT managers, was underwritten by Cisco, NetApp and Tech Data. MeriTalk released it last month.
The indications that federal agencies saw value in converged technologies were relatively strong, considering the frequently conservative posture of agencies toward innovation. For example, 59 percent of respondents said that converged infrastructure solutions were part of their agency’s data center strategy, while 23 percent reported they had multiple convergence solutions in place.
Adoption has conformed with the federal Data Center Optimization Initiative issued just a year ago, with 60 percent of respondents reporting that convergence solutions were being used to replace working data centers. Fifty-seven percent said the technology was being used to replace end-of-life data centers, and 35 percent said their agencies were moving to converged solutions to establish new centers.
A Link to the Cloud
IT vendors who see convergence either as a good option or as an essential strategy for government agencies have been positioning themselves to respond to federal interest in the technology. Marketing strategies include making sure agencies are well aware of the convergence option, and developing products geared to federal requirements.
In addition, IT providers have been linking the use of convergence technologies to federal agencies’ growing demand for cloud technologies.
“The data consolidation initiative is driving the majority of the opportunities for converged systems,” Tech Data’s Speranzo told the E-Commerce Times.
Federal IT managers appeared to struggle soon after a government data consolidation directive was released in 2010, because agencies then did not have access to repeatable and consumable converged solutions, he noted.
“That has all changed, with our vendor community focused on filling this need, almost every end user we work with has converged solutions specified in their requirements to reach the goals established by OMB,” Speranzo said.
“The future of government IT, and the industry in general, will be a multicloud world. While many agencies will leverage the capabilities of the major cloud providers, many workloads are still best suited for private cloud deployments,” said Nick Michaelides, vice president of federal sales at Cisco.
“Convergence provides a common, scalable and flexible infrastructure platform that can be used as the foundation of a private cloud, or as an extension of a public cloud — such as Microsoft’s Azure Stack,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “Ultimately, true customer success will be gained from vendors who can provide both vertical stack integration, as well as horizontal integration across clouds.”
Participants in the survey revealed the range of deployment strategies, with 55 percent of respondents reporting they were using convergence solutions with internal data centers; 53 percent were using them with private clouds; 39 percent with hybrid clouds; and 33 percent with public clouds.
Market Emerges but Challenges Remain
As with most innovations, the path to federal agencies’ adoption of convergence solutions will not be smooth — the situation needs to be addressed by vendors and agencies alike.
Security is one of the challenges the MeriTalk survey revealed. Forty-four percent of respondents were concerned about security. Other potential problems include limited funding, as noted by 39 percent of respondents; interoperability (24 percent); forced updates (23 percent) and vendor lock-in (21 percent).
“The road to an integrated IT system should not be a daunting one,” said Rob Stein, vice president for the U.S. public sector at NetApp.
“Most of today’s data centers and related systems cannot keep up with the growing amount of data within federal agencies. Integrating all the pieces of the data center together radically simplifies data management, especially in the new hybrid cloud world,” he said.
Other IT vendors are aware of the potential market for converged solutions at the federal level. Merlin International and HyTrust earlier this year joined with NetApp to issue a report on federal agencies’ use of converged solutions, including a focus on security.
More than 90 percent of respondents to a Dell EMC survey of federal agencies considered mobility and converged infrastructure as key elements for future IT management, the company reported late last year.
That future could provide vendors with significant opportunities.
Respondents to the MeriTalk survey indicated that they saw potential for convergence not only for data storage but also for a variety of other purposes, including big data analytics, workforce productivity, agency-specific applications, business processing and virtual desktop infrastructure.