Federal IT Modernization: Spending Money to Save Money

Samantha Reid, EUC Global Government

Samantha Reid, EUC Global Government

A report published by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), in May 2016, confirmed that the U.S. federal government spends more than 75 percent of its yearly IT budget on operations and maintenance (O&M) investments, due in large part to a dependence on aging legacy infrastructure. This type of spending continues to increase year over year, negatively impacting opportunities to budget for federal IT modernization and innovation. In addition to their high cost, most legacy systems have lost relevancy and are risking cyber security in today’s mobile-cloud computing era.

The Problem With Legacy Systems

The 87-page report reveals some surprising insights, including that the Department of Defense runs its Strategic Automated Command and Control System, responsible for the United States’ nuclear forces, on a computing system from the 1970s and—wait for it—manages data on 8-inch floppy disks.

Far more important, however, is the fact that these legacy systems have not only aged out of their original intent and effectiveness, but the underlying infrastructures might as well be considered endangered. So much of the hardware, software, and languages powering these systems have been out of the marketplace and the public’s consciousness for so long that it’s become increasingly harder (and more expensive) to recruit IT staff with working knowledge of these obsolete systems. Similar reports have noted that federal agencies have had to rehire formerly retired employees to manage legacy systems that a new generation of workers cannot operate.

What’s the Fix?

Modernization is the obvious solution to this ongoing problem, but as obsolete as these systems are, agencies cannot just rip out decades-old infrastructure and processes and replace them with modern end-user computing solutions, such as virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), application virtualization, or enterprise mobility management (EMM). For the agency CIO and others involved in the strategic planning and acquisition of information technology, the issue with innovation is a classic catch-22. Agencies need to spend money to maintain current systems and “keep the lights on,” while simultaneously investing in development, modernization, and enhancement (DME) projects.

For several reasons—from strengthening cyber security to equipping field workers with seamless access to their desktops from anywhere in the world—infrastructure modernization is a huge goal for many government CIOs. And the administration’s request for $3.1 billion for fiscal 2017 to establish the Information Technology Modernization Fund (ITMF) underscores the nation’s need to update core IT processes and systems, to not only maintain operations but to radically improve security and service delivery.

Not surprisingly, this request (and its bill) has been met with both support and skepticism among lawmakers. The underlying logic of the bill—spending money to save money—is not a novel idea in businesses across all sectors. In 2016, United States CIO Tony Scott stated that thorough analysis of federal IT modernization projects pre- and post-2013 showed that agencies that modernized a component of their legacy systems, hardware, or processes decreased maintenance costs year over year. Agencies that did not invest in legacy modernization over this four-year time period, however, continued to spend at a rate of 6 percent on maintenance. That amount may not seem significant, but when inefficient operating expenses are factored in, such as the hourly cost of employees to physically maintain and troubleshoot legacy systems, that figure rises substantially. Even more, factoring in the cost of remediating a massive data breach—often simmering right below legacy infrastructures’ surface—further supports the need for investments in modernization.

Taking Action

So what can government CIOs do today as the ITMF remains in limbo? Regardless if agencies receive additional funding through ITMF, CIOs will have to prioritize digital advancement within their budget asks, beginning with identifying the agency’s key modernization goals (and the barriers to their achievement) with key stakeholders across departments, functions, and lines of business. Next, CIOs and their project leads must research and map out the technologies needed to support these goals and their varying use cases.

The tech industry can play a huge role in helping agencies, from the local to federal levels, prioritize and architect their modernization blueprints. The software-defined data center and end-user computing both play a huge role in modernizing archaic infrastructure. Leveraging cloud and virtual technologies that span devices, applications, and networks is where agencies need to focus their modernization efforts.

Data center consolidation has delivered more than $1.5 billion in savings to date, but there’s more we need to do, especially in the areas of cyber security and service delivery. The ITMF may not solve all of government’s IT issues and woes, but it serves as a giant step in exploring new ways to slowly eradicate vulnerable, expensive, and inflexible legacy infrastructure while enabling the types of digital workspace solutions that are so critically needed. It might take a village, but today’s government CIO has the opportunity to start the conversation and spearhead their agency’s path to federal IT modernization.

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