Why rebuilding your architecture from scratch could be the best bet
If your agency currently is operating an application developed more than, say, eight years ago, here's an important question for you: Why aren't you starting over?
Just asking this question doesn't necessarily mean you should start over. There can be justifiable reasons for keeping an older application in place and running for several years, including perceived cost advantages and larger enterprise architecture choices.
However, the possibility of abandoning legacy architectures – taking a green-field approach to IT modernization – should always be lurking in the background as agencies evaluate their system needs. This is especially true today as new economies of scale for computing have been made available through cloud computing and virtualized environments. Also, these new architectures have made available new functionality ranging from mobile solutions to social media integration or even quick mash-up capabilities.
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This sort of cutting-edge functionality can be tough to mimic in an older environment, which is why discussions about leapfrogging to new platforms have been heard lately around many IT department water coolers. New computing needs have prompted some deep introspection as government IT managers make their long-term IT budgeting decisions.
Clearly, agencies this year are being called upon to do more with less, and to meet the growing demands of their information-consuming citizens. It's becoming increasingly important for those agencies to build their new applications on cost-effective and flexible new cloud-based platforms.
One agency that has become the poster child for the cloud-based approach is the Recovery, Accountability and Transparency Board, RATB, created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The board designed and launched its Recovery.gov website in a matter of weeks, integrating data feeds from multiple agencies. Development and hosting were done in the cloud. The original contract for the system also asked for a business continuity/disaster recovery site, but RATB decided instead to "build a fully redundant, highly available and geographically separated solution on the cloud at a fraction of the cost," according to its 2010 reports.
Virtually no one who is building a new application today chooses to build it the same way they would have done it five years ago or even two years ago. Today you can spin up a cloud-based virtualized server at very low cost. You can import data via XML feeds into a variety of new cloud-based databases, available from both traditional players (Microsoft SQL Azure and Oracle Database Cloud ) or other players such as MongoDB, Cassandra and CouchDB, which tend to be used to drive Web-based, highly scalable applications. There's also the SAP Sybase Anywhere Cloud Edition, which is growing in popularity.
Meanwhile, for applications dedicated to big data needs, agencies can use solutions like the open source Apache Hadoop framework, which supports large-scale distributed applications, enabling them to work with thousands of independent computers and petabytes of data. These are big tasks, supporting big computing ideas. Can older applications be modified to support all of this type of functionality? Maybe. After all, anything can be customized if you throw enough money at it.
But there are logical reasons why enterprises sometimes switch to new systems, just as there are reasons why people occasionally buy new cars rather than continuing to repair their old ones. A fresh start should be part of your conversation if your application is due for a major overhaul or if you need to to move the solution to another platform or data center.
Are you facing a growing number of change requests or application enhancements that are difficult to manage and pay for? Is your agency finding it difficult to share data across departments, to the point where it's slowing your business process and performance? If so, you should be at least be considering a new system.
Ask yourself whether your current IT solutions meet the long-term goals of OMB’s "anytime, anywhere, any device" strategy. Can you integrate social media into your existing solutions – both incoming and outgoing? Can your agency provide IT resources for developers to create new apps, such as open data repositories and application programming interfaces?
As government agencies move toward fiscal year 2013, they are making important decisions about how they will control costs and meet the requirements demanded by a new era of computing. That may very well mean starting over, and working toward a platform that allows greater computing flexibility and future expansion.
At the very least, starting with a green-field approach to your IT architecture should be part of your conversation, and not just around the water cooler.
Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.