DOD says no to massive IT acquisitions

Large systems integrators will have a role, but it won’t be to run proprietary systems

Led by the Defense Information Systems Agency, the Defense Department is turning to a new model for procuring information technology. Under that model, DISA expects to acquire computing capabilities as a managed service, buy easy-to-implement commercial solutions, and subdivide large projects into smaller components that can be combined using service-oriented architecture (SOA) standards.

DISA has told industry officials that DOD needs are changing. “The day of the big systems integrator is over,” said Brig. Gen. David Warner, DISA’s program executive officer for command and control capabilities, speaking at a recent industry luncheon.

For decades, large integrators sat atop the world of major information systems procurement at DOD. The government outsourced development and stewardship of programs worth billions of dollars, yielding control of IT acquisitions to select companies. Those companies, in turn, developed mammoth systems using proprietary technologies that ensured the companies’ involvement and continuing business with the government for years to come.

But all that is changing, defense officials and industry experts say. The pace of technological change and the evolving nature of how the military uses IT, combined with tightened budgets and the urgency of the war effort, require a new approach.

DISA will still need industry’s help in finding and delivering capabilities to meet DOD’s requirements, but that procurement process will occur on a smaller scale than in the past, Warner said. DISA will use a third party or designated “capability broker,” he said. After DISA defines a capability architecture, it will use the broker to find and deliver technologies from the private sector.

Large systems integrators’ reactions to DISA’s new policy have been mixed. Large integrators must adapt, said Anthony Valetta, a former DOD chief information officer who is now a senior vice president and CIO at SRA International. DISA’s IT procurement policy shift opens opportunities for smaller integrators who don’t manufacture and therefore don’t face ethical conflicts, he said.

Some DISA officials, however, were quick to point out that the need for large systems integrators is not going away, but their role will change. John Garing, DISA’s CIO, said the sheer capacity and experience of those companies make them invaluable for the foreseeable future. But DISA’s need for speed, agility and adaptability discourages proprietary solutions or tightly coupled systems, he said.  

DISA’s new preference is for a loose SOA framework to link modules that DOD can add and subtract at will. “I don’t anticipate any large procurement that’s got a turnkey solution that requires any large integration,” Garing said.

Some industry executives and experts praised the vision of DISA leaders but expressed concern about the policy’s implementation. DISA leaders do not yet know, for example, who will perform what Garing calls “light integration.” That broker could be a current integrator, one of the military services or a federally funded research center, Garing said.

Meanwhile, DISA is working with the  Network Centric Operations Industry Consortium to define the new role that the capability broker will play. Some analysts say large systems integrators would be suited for the job, if it were not for an inherent conflict of interest.

Garing suggested that such integrators might have a central role if an institutional firewall separated them from the programs they manage. DISA is not ruling anyone out at this point, he added.

Other DOD officials asserted that the department must retain intellectual control to be effective. George Snider, who leads the Warfare Systems Technology Branch at the Naval Sea Systems Command’s division in Dahlgren, Va., said federally funded research and development centers can provide the technical expertise the government needs. But the government “must come to the table with the technical competence to contribute,” he said.

To be successful, some experts say DISA should go one step further. Large companies, such as GM and major Wall Street firms, have led in using emerging technical solutions and processes, but DOD has not effectively engaged the commercial industry outside the traditional defense industrial base, said John Weiler, executive director at the Interoperability Clearinghouse. 

By relying too much on defense-sector companies and industry associations, Weiler said, “we’re drinking our own bath water.” That over-reliance has prevented DOD from applying commercial best practices and resulted in an 80 percent failure rate for major IT initiatives, he added.

Congress has moved to address problems associated with large systems integrators in language written in the 2007 Defense Authorization Bill.

Garing said DISA would make its new procurement strategies work through the use of performance-based contract language, service-level agreements and service-level management. And he predicted that DOD would benefit from the increased competition between large systems integrators and the nontraditional companies that DISA is inviting into the technology sandbox.
What is SOA?The definition of service-oriented architecture is a topic of debate. Some view SOA as a technology. Others consider it to be a governance model. Industry leans toward the latter definition, regarding it as a philosophy rather than a software methodology.

Defense Information Systems Agency officials view SOA as a way to organize the Defense Department’s complex mix of business processes, said John Garing, DISA’s chief information officer. DOD must be ready to use all available data in responding to unanticipated events, he said.

DOD needs the flexibility that SOA enables. “The essence of SOA is that it’s standards-based,” Garing said. Many DOD systems, including the Global Command and Control System-Joint, have hard-wired interfaces. That limits the flexibility of their data

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