Plug and play
- By Diane Frank
- Mar 31, 2002
The Bush administration has proposed an intriguing approach to e-government: Rather than leaving each agency to develop its own applications, why not have some agencies develop basic components that can be used by others? This concept of plug-and-play e-government, called component-based architecture, is the latest effort by the Office of Management and Budget to shape a more cohesive, cross- government approach to technology management.
Last month, OMB released component-based architectural models for the 24 cross-agency e-government initiatives. The models will help agencies decide what technology they need to complete their e-government projects and will also help agencies work better together.
The models reflect the idea of build once, use many — in other words, capitalizing on what one agency has done to serve many agencies' needs. For example, software that handles online payments or manages online grant applications could be applied to more than one e-government initiative.
As such, component-based architecture is a good fit for the e-government strategy, experts say. "The concept of component-based architecture is that you have an architecture into which you can freely plug things and replace things," said Tricia Oberndorf, co-leader of the COTS-Based Systems Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute.
But turning that concept into a reality may prove no simple matter. Component-based architecture is not easy in the best of circumstances. And the federal government, observers say, is hardly working in the best of circumstances.
Seeking Common Ground
OMB's component-based architecture strategy is part of an overarching effort to convince agencies to think in terms of enterprise architectures — that is, blueprints that describe how their information systems relate to one another.
Although some people might assume you need to have an enterprise architecture before you can start talking about its components, OMB officials believe it can work the other way around.
The strategy begins with the e-government initiatives. OMB is asking agencies to identify areas where they can adopt common technology across agencies and initiatives, said Mark Forman, OMB's associate director of information technology and e-government.
"By applying the component-based architecture concepts, we now have a way to facilitate agencies' own enterprise architectures and to find a way to reuse technology," Forman said.
OMB will not declare one product as a standard, according to Norman Lorentz, OMB's first chief technology officer, who is in charge of overseeing the federal enterprise architecture over the long term.
Instead, OMB is likely to determine common technologies for standard functions and services — such as Web portal technology or search engines — that can be met by various products, he said.
This will make the modernization envisioned in the administration's e-government strategy much easier to achieve, Forman said.
For starters, using common core technologies will cut down on development time for everyone involved. It will also allow the government to get better deals on the technology by buying for multiple agencies at one time rather than individually, he said.
But it will also ensure, as a good enterprise architecture is supposed to, that different software and systems will be able to work together across agencies.
Unfortunately, OMB's strategy could be undermined by the poor state of affairs within many agencies.
Although every agency is required to have an enterprise architecture under OMB's Circular A-130, a General Accounting Office review released March 19 revealed that very few agencies have fully met that requirement. The architecture outlines where an organization's technology currently stands, where officials want it to go and the plan to get there.
With many agencies just starting on their own enterprise architectures, the current federal environment is not conducive to the component-based concept, Oberndorf said.
Even within individual agencies, systems have not been designed for a single architecture plan, resulting in what David Garlan, another Carnegie Mellon researcher, calls "architectural mismatch," Oberndorf said.
Garlan coined the term in 1995 in a paper with two other Carnegie Mellon professors, using it to describe how building systems from existing parts often turns up unexpected incompatibilities simply because the parts were designed separately. That is still a problem for most sectors, particularly the government with its combination of commercial off-the-shelf technology and legacy government systems, Oberndorf said. "Every system is approached as if it is being designed on the first day of the world," she said. "There's no way on earth that they're going to find a set of things that they can plug into a single architecture."
Mismatch is a problem, but there are ways around it, said one federal official who asked not to be named and is a longtime enterprise architecture advocate. When migrating from legacy systems, the key is to build a "bridge" architecture. That bridge will provide the necessary buffer between the existing infrastructure and the target architecture, allowing developers to resolve any mismatch issues without negatively affecting the target architecture, he said.
The CIO Council is tackling the problem, drafting architecture guidance intended to help officials really understand and apply enterprise architecture principles to their developing technology, said Michael Tiemann, co-chairman of the council's Federal Architecture and Infrastructure Committee's architecture working group.
The draft guidance will provide a core set of standards for e-government applications as they replace paper-based pro.cesses and services within and across agencies, Tiemann said. It also will outline high-level categories of technology that agency officials need to think about when designing their architectures, much as Lorentz has in mind.
Setting the architecture at this level is necessary before anyone can start thinking about interchangeable pieces, said Tiemann, who is also director of architecture and standards in the Energy Department's Office of the Chief Information Officer.
"When you start to smush unlike things together, it gets confusing," he said.
An enterprise architecture can be applied at many levels, and the success or failure of OMB's idea for a component-based architecture could hinge on which level is tackled first, said Randy Hite, GAO's director of IT architecture and systems issues.
An enterprise could actually refer to an entire department or agency, to an office or bureau within an agency, or even to a business line, such as travel applications, he said.
Working with the 24 e-government initiatives — each of which are based on bringing together multiple agencies' serv.ices within a single line of business — is probably the best way to start because the projects offer areas of development where common needs are already defined, Oberndorf said.
Getting It Done
The administration is taking a methodical approach to helping agencies progress, said Debra Stouffer, deputy CIO at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. She is currently on a temporary detail to OMB to head up development of the federal enterprise architecture effort.
Early on, agency officials were thinking about each e-government initiative in terms of their agencies' own requirements. So OMB's first goal is to define a transitional architecture in which the initiatives build on a common set of technologies. The next step is to create a target architecture for each initiative's future technology developments.
Detailing those common components will begin the process for agencies to understand the opportunities for sharing technology, Forman said.
To do this, OMB's Enterprise Architecture Program Management Office, led by Stouffer, is performing a full assessment of the existing architecture information from federal agencies, said Lee Holcomb, co-chairman of the CIO Council's Federal Architecture and Infrastructure Committee and CIO at NASA, testifying at a House e-government hearing in March.
The office is using the Enterprise Architecture Management System, developed by HUD and now used across government, to identify the initial opportunities for collaboration, he said.
The component-based architecture models that are developed using that information will then provide "a range of standardized solutions based on a limited set of common technologies," Holcomb said. And each e-government initiative will have designated "solutions architects" who will be responsible for using the models relevant to their initiative to create the baseline, transition and target architectures, he said.
That technology level is the best chance to bridge the gap between the existing, mismatched IT infrastructure and the vision of designing future systems across government under a single architecture, Oberndorf said.
If OMB avoids the one-size-fits-all approach, component-based architecture could make it much easier to work across government, she said.
Such technology sharing is not new, Tiemann said, but the e-government initiatives are really pushing the idea forward.
Sharing "has been done back-channel in the federal government for years," he said. "Getting that to be ubiquitous, getting agencies to understand the importance of that, is the hard part." It does help that this effort is being led by OMB and has advocates within departments and agencies in the form of deputy secretaries, who sit on the President's Management Council and oversee the e-government agenda, Tiemann said.
"There's finally an imminent possibility that something will come from these activities," he said.
The initial component-based architecture model for those initiatives has already been outlined under the milestones set in the E-Government Strategy report, but that is only the first step (see "Springing ahead," Page 18).
OMB has also designated four focus areas — homeland secu.rity, social services, economic stimulus and back-office operations — that cut across government agencies and require immediate attention to ensure interoperability as the modernization effort moves forward, Stouffer said.
The work in those four focus areas will likely follow the segment concept outlined in the CIO Council guidelines and is "absolutely critical to getting an enterprise architecture going and [keeping] it going in the government," Tiemann said.
One thing officials must understand is that an enterprise architecture will not appear overnight and using a component-based approach will not make it happen noticeably faster, Tiemann said. But "we are on the cusp of actually seeing an interesting phenomenon," he added. "We're looking at the possibility of seeing a major reorganization across government without seeing a redefinition of all the tags and labels."