Josh Stephens is vice president of technology for IT management software company SolarWinds.

COMMENTARY

Fear the slasher: Surviving the IT budget horror show

Forget Freddy, Jason and the rest of the costumed creatures — there’s a new king of the hill when it comes to fright, and it resides in the confines of Washington, D.C. Fueled by a shrinking economy and vicious bipartisan bickering, the agency budget, or lack thereof, has become the most terrifying thing in the federal world, especially when it comes to IT.

But this general lack of funds has spawned a host of other nightmares to keep agency CIOs awake at night. Beyond tightened budgets, federal IT shops are also faced with a slew of mandates requiring them to streamline operations while investing in new technologies, ranging from the Office of Management and Budget’s Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative to the Cloud First strategy and the new CyberScope component of the Federal Information Security Management Act. 

Although all of these edicts will save money in the long run, they are forcing new and, to a certain extent, untried technologies into agency networks.


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Also rearing its head during the budget maelstrom is IT’s constant demon: complexity. Not only are federal applications and systems growing increasingly complex organically, agency IT teams are also dealing with the rise of mobile devices and an increased demand for integrating heterogeneous smart phones into the fabric of federal networks. Compounded with ever-evolving malware threats, agency IT pros must be starting to feel like they’re trapped in the technology equivalent of “Saw.”

Strained budgets also mean that agency decision-makers will face a house of horrors when it comes to training, which tends to take the biggest hit during budget freak-outs. Training current staff on new technologies and bringing new hires up to speed will become exceedingly difficult, if not outright impossible, in turn leading to lapsed IT certifications, which can put key agency projects and critical networks at risk.

Just as in any slasher film, agency IT can survive federal budget cuts. But there will be victims, so CIOs need to know not only what to cut — identifying their expendable characters — but also where to spend limited funds.

Take legacy off life support

Every agency has a legacy system that has more in common with an extra from the “The Walking Dead” than it does with the modern federal network — it’s essentially a zombie. Typically, these legacy systems are extremely expensive to maintain, particularly from a consultant and licensing perspective, but they are kept alive because it’s easier to pay for them than it is to tear them out.

That’s not the case anymore, especially with budget masters willing to bring the ax down on anything and everything. So why not pull the legacy systems out now?

The budget crisis provides essentially a clean slate when it comes to IT projects. Everything is fair game for end-of-life — from legacy to expensive and ill-conceived projects — so CIOs should take advantage and cut these cancers out before they dig any deeper into the network, and the pocketbook.

The (complex) serial killer

Complexity has always been an ax man for agency networks, but with slashed budgets draining available funds for training, it’s even more of a problem. 

Consider, for example, network management — typical agency networks comprise hundreds of applications and supporting systems, both physical and virtual, making managing such an environment no laughing matter. Most IT teams tend to implement even more overly complex solutions to manage these networks, which require a great degree of specialization to even use. 

And now the dead training budget comes into play — any new hires or existing staff members making lateral moves into IT management need training on that monstrosity of a network management solution, but there’s no money to bring in a consultant or refresh training materials. Complexity has killed again.

The network management paradigm is just one example in a typical agency IT shop. The fact is that in the modern enterprise marketplace, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of streamlined, low-cost solutions that fit the needs of federal IT teams. These products take complexity out of the equation altogether, ensuring that training new staff on a given technology is a matter of hours/days rather than weeks/months (or, God forbid, years).

It’s not 2001: Topple the monolith

There seems to be a tendency for agency networks to gravitate toward monolithic IT solutions, whether it’s for IT management, e-mail or application monitoring. While these huge systems sound great during the sales cycle, the implementation and upkeep are terrors — many a federal IT professional has been driven nearly mad trying to apply firmware updates to these cyclopean structures. 

The truth is that bigger isn’t better and, just as with legacy systems, there’s no better time than a budget crunch to drag the monolith out the door.

Modularity is the new trend in IT for both the public and private sectors, and it’s likely to stick around. Not only does it ensure that agency IT shops are paying for only the features that they need, but it allows them to add and drop capabilities as the needs of their networks change, usually for a reasonable price. 

Trying to add or remove functionality from a monolith is like trying to plead for your life in front of a movie monster — it’s futile.

Keep the monsters at bay

The budget horror show doesn’t appear to be coming to an end anytime soon, especially with economic numbers remaining tepid at best. But with the right technology strategy, agency CIOs can not only meet their own IT goals but also fuel a resurgence of the efficient, effective agency, buoyed by modular technologies, streamlined solutions and easy-to-understand training. 

The above strategies represent a whole new way of thinking when it comes to agency IT, but by implementing these approaches, federal CIOs and IT leads can ensure that the budget slasher movie at least has a happy ending.

Reader Comments

Fri, Oct 28, 2011 DBS

The problem is getting management to understand this. If a legacy system supports a critical function it's like turning a bus into a submarine while you're driving it down the road.

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