Aging, customized applications are bugaboo of IT management reform

Mark Cohn is chief technology officer and Peter Gallagher is a partner at Unisys Federal Systems.

Federal IT leaders have a full plate under Federal CIO Vivek Kundra’s 25-point plan that calls for them to turn around or terminate underperforming initiatives, switch to cloud-based services whenever possible, and consolidate data centers.

To achieve that aggressive agenda, a less visible challenge looms: application modernization.

In a recent study by Unisys and MeriTalk, “Federal Application Modernization Road Trip: Express Lane or Detour Ahead?,” four of five C-level federal IT executives said they believe mission-critical government capabilities are at risk if agencies fail to modernize their existing applications. The study also found that operations and maintenance (O&M) activity consumes more than half of all IT spending and increasingly crowds out funds needed for development, modernization and enhancement (DME).

Agency CIOs face a seemingly insurmountable funding obstacle. In the face of shrinking budgets and essential O&M to-do lists, how can agencies align critical applications with the cloud-first agenda? Thousands of customized applications, built over decades, contain the business logic required to execute critical government functions in a complex digital fabric that is rarely cloud-ready.

Cloud solutions rely on reuse characteristics generally associated with generic business functions, common architecture, multitenancy, shared services, open application programming interfaces and other attributes that are the antithesis of the heterogeneous environments that are common at large federal organizations.

Therefore, agencies must look beyond rip-and-replace technology modernization and rethink the traditional, forced distinction between O&M and DME. To benefit from cloud computing, we must embrace a culture of reuse for all types of applications. Otherwise, the cost and complexity of maintaining disparate systems will eventually overwhelm our ability to respond to users’ expectations.

The most celebrated reuse strategies have featured some form of service-oriented architecture. In the past, SOA hype was fueled by top-down architectural models that were slow to deliver a return on investment. Today, an incremental service-enablement approach is a pragmatic alternative for agencies. It represents a new style of goal-driven IT governance that focuses on shared assets.

Taking advantage of low-hanging cloud opportunities — infrastructure and common software services — is well under way. Platform as a service has been less prominent, but it offers the greatest possibilities for addressing the application modernization conundrum. It goes beyond providing a simple application stack to include a growing array of tools and techniques for building and running software.

Because each agency has its own special challenges, the best approach might be to choose platforms that deliver an interoperable infrastructure that recognizes the goal of asset reuse in complex heterogeneous IT environments while promoting collaboration around shared business objectives. Such an approach would document and monitor services so the entire enterprise could benefit from and contribute to reuse goals.

Creating a culture of reuse built on a common infrastructure is essential for evaluating applications and eliminating redundant ones. Incrementally identifying and sharing services will facilitate the migration of critical applications to the cloud over time. A fundamental tenet should be to include service orientation and build on shared platforms whenever resource-intensive O&M activities are undertaken.

In keeping with Kundra’s focus on sharing services and resources via cloud technology, collaboration in and among agencies will help achieve service reuse and will be essential to reducing maintenance costs.

About the Authors

Mark Cohn is chief technology officer at Unisys Federal Systems.

Peter Gallagher is group vice president for portfolio solutions at Unisys Federal Systems.

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