No pain, no gain

Mention "enterprise IT architecture" and you will likely get one of two reactions: glazed eyes from those who don't understand or a look of dread from those who do.

But, slowly, that's changing. In recent months, the departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs have announced plans to develop department.wide technology plans that internal offices can follow when setting up or upgrading their networks and computers.

These plans establish standards for core information technology components, including hardware, operating systems and core desktop applications, as well as communication protocols for data exchange. People generally talk about breaking down agency stovepipes — systems that, having been set up independently, can't share information or applications across agency offices, much less governmentwide. They also talk about making technical support less labor-intensive by reducing the range of technical expertise needed in-house. And they aim to reduce procurement costs by putting offices on a common platform so they can combine their buying power and get better bargains.

Still, some might argue that developing an IT blueprint is just trading one problem for another. To say that offices should not have stovepiped systems is one thing, but convincing those offices to go along with a plan developed by someone else is another matter altogether. The architecture concept requires that different agency offices — which have separate functions and therefore do work differently — have common technical requirements. So, developing a common architecture involves compromise. And even if a plan obtains the necessary blessing, the money is not always there to make it happen.

HHS in particular has devised an especially comprehensive strategy. The sheer size of the agency will make it difficult to pull this off, even if they manage to come up with the funding.

The enormity of the task, however, is no reason not to try. Indeed, it's probably not enough to describe the enterprise IT architecture as a concept whose time has come. In reality, the federal government has been struggling for years to manage the problems that IT architecture is intended to solve. Let the hard work begin.

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