To support long-term modernization initiatives, agencies must invest in skilled staff and open, automated and collaborative processes.
Many people would define "IT modernization" as the attempt to bring technology up to today's needs and standards, but it's so much more than that. First, that definition implies that administrators' modernization efforts will eventually reach a definitive conclusion, when in fact this work will continue ad infinitum. Second, modernization must be about more than just technology. Agencies must also update the processes they use to support, manage and implement their technological endeavors -- from the ways they train and educate employees to how different teams work together.
Here are four best practices that federal IT administrators can adopt to keep their eyes on the future and effectively support their agencies' long-term modernization initiatives.
1. Focus on people and processes, not just technology
The federal government itself looks at modernization as more than just technology. In the section on modernization and maturity, the Federal Cloud Computing Strategy prioritizes the need for improved processes and a well-trained workforce. Indeed, "workforce" is listed as one of the three pillars of successful cloud adoption. The Trump administration's Executive Order on Maintaining American Leadership in Artificial Intelligence also emphasizes the need for a highly skilled workforce, as does a recent EO calling for an increase in cybersecurity skills.
Agencies must invest in training on the new technologies they deploy. Today, that most certainly means containers, cloud technologies, cybersecurity and perhaps artificial intelligence. Tomorrow, it will likely mean serverless computing, deep learning and whatever comes next.
Establishing processes that support these new technologies can help agencies and their newly retrained teams become more nimble and familiar with collaborative environments. For example, agile development processes and DevOps are elemental to creating containerized applications and are therefore essential to modernization, as they accelerate application development and provide opportunities for collaboration. Furthermore, containers break applications down into smaller, loosely coupled chunks and move from modern n-tier applications to microservices, which can more easily be refactored, expanded and deprecated. This can enable agencies to move fast with minimal breakage.
2. Automate as much as possible
But what happens when employees leave to join other organizations or retire? Agencies need a way to preserve workers' knowledge and pass it along to others.
Automating as many processes as possible can help to address this challenge. For example, system configurations can be documented in a human- and machine-readable manner. That way, new employees do not have to manually reconfiguring their agencies' systems.
Automation can have many other benefits. Disaster recovery and security responses can be deployed with minimal human intervention. Application development processes can be automated to reduce technical debt. And automation can help free up talent to focus more on mission-critical projects.
3. Adopt a hybrid or multi-cloud approach
Some of those projects undoubtedly involve migrating applications and infrastructure to the cloud, something that organizations are doing more frequently. Gartner forecasts the worldwide public cloud services market will grow to $214.3 billion in 2019, up 17.5% from 2018.
But while migrating to the public cloud can help organizations gain greater efficiencies, long-term cost reductions are not guaranteed. Public cloud services can have a low barrier of entry, but the egress costs can be higher than IT professionals might anticipate. Once they move their data into the cloud, it can be time-consuming and expensive to move it out.
Rather than go all-in on the public cloud, many organizations are investing in a hybrid or multicloud approach. Adopting such an approach can help agencies fulfill the Federal Cloud Computing Strategy's call to "move to the cloud according to their mission needs." Agencies can avoid vendor lock-in and enjoy the ability to transfer workloads between clouds as necessary. They can also save money while taking advantage of the different features and capabilities of various cloud providers and running workloads wherever it's most appropriate and cost-effective.
4. Consider commercially-supported open source
To facilitate application portability between clouds, agencies should consider building their environment on top of a platform-agnostic open-source substrate. But which one to choose? How to tell if it's secure or in compliance with government standards?
Agencies should seek out partners that work directly with open-source communities and have experience turning projects into products. These organizations make open-source code enterprise-ready through user-friendly interfaces and authoritative, hardened security components and guidance. Managers should look for vendors with government certifications and accreditations, such as FIPS-validated cryptography and adherence to U.S. government repositories of publicly available security checklists like those provided by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Working with partners that are well-versed in the intricacies of open source and government requirements -- and are effecting change in open source to meet those requirements -- can be a powerful collaboration for the modernization journey.
A willingness to be open is the key to successfully navigating that journey. Agencies must have open organizational processes that enables people to grow. Meanwhile, open-source technology can provide an underlying infrastructure that helps them keep stepping toward the future.
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