Federal architecture poised to become real

Essential building blocks are in place for greater consolidation

Technically, the federal enterprise architecture is not really an architecture, but the Office of Management and Budget is examining ways it might become one.

"We are exploring the opportunity to develop a federal architecture," said Dick Burk, chief architect, following a speech he gave last week at FCW Events' Enterprise Architecture conference and exhibition in Washington, D.C. Enterprise architecture is a process for ensuring that an organization's infrastructure -- and not only information technology -- and business processes operate in tandem.

The federal enterprise architecture is mostly a program overseeing the development of individual agency architectures and a means for initiating some cross-agency consolidation efforts.

But many of the building blocks for creating a federal enterprise architecture are already in place, Burk said. The E-Authentication e-government initiative is set to become the first reusable architecture component in a governmentwide repository next month.

Many agency enterprise architectures are maturing. Starting next year, agencies will be able to access service centers for some administrative functions. And the data reference model is close to facilitating data exchanges.

"Once upon a time, the bad news was nobody had enterprise architectures," said Gene Leganza, vice president of Forrester Research's public-sector group, while speaking during a conference panel. But these days, "the bad news is everybody has an enterprise architecture, and you get into religious wars." Federal agencies use at least four major frameworks to craft enterprise architectures, and as a result, architects from different agencies often can't communicate effectively.

Agencies would not need to abandon their chosen tools and frameworks to produce a real federal enterprise architecture, Burk said. But a translator will be necessary to harmonize different frameworks' terminology, he added.

That task is not impossible because architecture frameworks aren't irreconcilably different, he said. "It's a limited universe of ideas."

But the number of architecture frameworks that agencies use is a problem, said Randy Hite, the Government Accountability Office's director of IT architecture and systems issues, during a conference panel discussion.

For the life of me, I cannot understand why we have so many frameworks," he said. "The more standardization around this, the better."

To attain the infrastructure rationalization goals of enterprise architecture, agencies must also begin standardizing their business processes, said John Sullivan, the Environmental Protection Agency's chief architect.

"Some of the reasons why there's such diversity in the way the systems work is diversity in the business processes," Sullivan said. Agencies should look at those processes as if they were commodities, not individual products.

"If you look at manufacturing, if I'm going to bring a new line of toasters in the market, it's going to run on 110 volts. That's just a given," he said.

However, enterprise architecture champions should not harp on the Clinger-Cohen Act's legal requirements when they talk to agency executives, said John McManus, NASA's deputy chief information officer and chief technology officer. People will just respond to the mandate by just going through the motions.

Creating an architecture governance process that takes advantage of existing centers of power can ensure that agencies don't discard enterprise architecture as irrelevant, McManus said.

"If we stood up a new enterprise architecture governance board, I would have gotten a lot of IT geeks," he said. Instead, NASA decided to flow enterprise architecture decision-making through existing governance boards and include the agency administrator.

"People don't argue with things that he signed out," McManus said.

Developing an architecture is best done in parts, he added. Architects often fixate on either developing extensive documentation of the current state of the enterprise -- the "as is" -- or developing a plan for achieving a more rationalized future -- the "to be." Instead, they should create an initial as-is state and gradually add more detail, McManus said.

Agencies need mature enterprise architectures to guide future investments and plan, said Mike Tiemann, a longtime enterprise architecture proponent who is now a senior associate at Booz Allen Hamilton. "You would never think about going today to work in a building that didn't have plans and the steel in there didn't have specifications."

"Ultimately, the chief information officer may be working for the chief architect, instead of the other way around," Tiemann added.

DRM task force readies new info-sharing model

Having readily visible and accessible data is needed to ensure that enterprise architecture can prevent agencies from collecting redundant information.

Information sharing is also an intrinsic good, said Michael Daconta, while delivering a keynote address last week at FCW Events' Enterprise Architecture conference and exhibition.

Daconta is head of the CIO Council's Data Reference Model task force, which is readying an updated model detailing the structure, categorization and exchange of agency information. The model should be finished by Oct. 17, he said.

Using it, agencies would be able to exchange predefined messages containing information for everyday needs, such as purchase orders. Government analysts would also be able to access other agencies' data for searches.

The National Information Exchange Model, a Homeland Security Department-led project that is slated for completion by June 2006, will showcase how the data reference model construct works for exchanging commonly used, predefined messages, Daconta said. But analysts can't be hamstrung by a limited set of predefined messages as the only means for interagency data exchange, he added.

"I want to allow power users like analysts to ask any type of question that comes to their minds," he said. Under the model's construct, agencies will register access points into their data that users with appropriate clearances can access.

The task force is also proceeding with its proposal for adoption of a hierarchical Extensible Markup Language schema for data categorization and exchange as a means for information sharing, although with caveats. The task force had earlier proposed governmentwide adoption of its XML schema. But now it is planning to test the schema in volunteer government communities with newly emerging common interests.

Existing communities of interest with established XML schemas for data sharing will continue to use them, Daconta said.

However, the schemas must map to the three-tiered model of data context, sharing and description, which underpins the data reference model.

"You can have many different classification schema for a single set of data assets," Daconta said.

-- David Perera

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