Enterprise architectures

Agencies name EA hurdles

The management challenges to building an enterprise architecture most frequently identified by agencies:

  • Funding'50 percent of respondents

  • Management understanding'39 percent

  • Parochialism'39 percent

  • Skilled staff'32 percent

Source: General Accounting Office

Susan Warshaw of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing recommends studying the CIO Council's guide to FEA and setting up a chief architect's council.

Oliver Douliery

'The framework is a generally high-level road map. The architecture is a set of specifically defined artifacts,' Energy's Michael Tiemann said.

Henrik G. DeGyor

EPA's Debra Stouffer says an enterprise architecture is an essential strategy but not a rigid set of rules or a cure-all.

Henrik G. DeGyor

Several years after federal agencies began individually building enterprise architectures to comply with the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, the Office of Management and Budget is gradually rolling out a mandatory process for all agencies to follow.

Though not dictating the details of a single, uniform architecture, OMB nonetheless says compliance with its emerging Federal Enterprise Architecture will be a condition of IT budget approvals starting in fiscal 2004.

Some on the trailing edge of the initiative might not even be sure what an enterprise architecture is, or have a clear idea how to implement one. But experts who have managed the process in large organizations, including numerous federal agencies, have provided useful guidance, much of it in official background materials and Web sites (see box).

Though EA definitions vary, they share the notion of a comprehensive blueprint for an organization's business processes and IT investments. The scope is the entire enterprise'at the least an entire agency or department, but increasingly its partner agencies, vendors and constituents'not merely internal offices and systems.

The result is an architecture, a basic structure or design for all the agency's real-world businesses, such as licensing or law enforcement, related information flows and the technologies that handle them. It's an exercise in system design and analysis, more than anything, and is meant to ensure that components cooperate and share data.

A viewpoint and a utility

More practically, a good EA can provide the first complete view of an agency's IT resources and how they relate to business processes. 'It's a strategic knowledge base and planning tool,' said Debra Stouffer, chief technology officer of the Environmental Protection Agency and co-chair of the CIO Council's Architecture and Critical Infrastructure Committee, one of the groups leading the efforts toward a federal architecture.

Proponents say three architectures are necessary: the baseline, or existing, architecture; the target architecture that outlines the goal and a transition architecture for getting there. An EA also requires a distinct but intimately related framework, which is a description of the architecture and how it relates to business processes.

'The framework is a generally high-level road map,' said Michael Tiemann, senior technical adviser for the Energy Department and a co-chairman of the Federal Architecture Working Group, who has advised more than 25 agencies on EA issues. 'The architecture is a set of specifically defined artifacts,' or systems models.

OMB fleshed out the definitions in a founding document, the OMB Circular A-130 revision of 2000, which required each agency to submit an EA. OMB said an EA must specify the capital planning, investment control and systems lifecycle processes the agency will use to reach the target architecture.

It also must contain an inventory of IT resources, including personnel and equipment, 'at an appropriate level of detail.'

To accomplish all this, an agency must first define a framework that documents 'linkages between mission needs, information content and information technology capabilities,' the circular states. Though the circular isn't exactly silent about the nature of compliant IT investments'it calls in principle for systems that are interoperable, scalable and secure, and that minimize duplication with other agencies' systems'it doesn't name specific technologies, such as the Java language or Microsoft Windows.

A-130 also identified the five required levels of an EA:
  • The business processes, containing the work an agency performs, plus change agents such as legislation that affects the business processes; this part is often called the business reference model

  • Information and the way it flows among business processes

  • Applications for processing the information

  • A model of the data processed by the agency's information systems'though some methodologies make increasingly less distinction between this and the information layer

  • A description of the technology infrastructure's functional characteristics, capabilities and connections.

The last component isn't a technical or engineering description; that should be in an additional component, the technical reference model. Another element, the standards profile, describes the industry standards followed in the technical reference model.

The physical form of the actual EA can vary, from a word processing document to a spreadsheet to a visual model built with specialized software.

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The Treasury Department's Bureau of Engraving and Printing is using Metis from Computas AS of Lysaker, Norway, to build its EA, said Susan Warshaw, the bureau's chief IT architect. Warshaw said she chose it because it has a shorter learning curve than similar programs as well as an integrated repository, good access to external data, and support for the parent agency's Treasury Enterprise Architecture Framework.

How-to advice from Warshaw and other experienced voices differs little from the standard advice for any IT initiative. First, line up buy-in from senior management by convincing them that an EA is a useful business tool.

'Really study the practical guide [A Practical Guide to Federal Enterprise Architecture, Version 1.1] put out by the CIO Council,' Warshaw advised. Other recommendations: Create a chief architect position and hire an outside consultant with EA experience to do most of the work.

The highest hurdles could be managerial more than technical. 'The biggest single task is getting anyone's attention or interest,' said Bill Rosser, vice president and research director at Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn.

Managers also should be prepared to devote substantial human resources to the task. Best-practice data from industry suggests that 2 percent to 4 percent of IT staff time is required, Rosser said. 'It goes on forever,' he said. 'One of the biggest challenges is keeping it evergreen.'

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing has already created a business reference model that is so close to the format of the Federal Enterprise Architecture model published on July 24 that it can be easily synchronized with changes and emerging details in the federal model, Warshaw said.

Knowledge resource

The bureau has also completed its baseline plan and expects soon to have its transitional plan in place, she said.

Like Stouffer, Warshaw said much of the EA's value is as a source of knowledge about processes and IT systems. 'Before we had this knowledge base, there was no single place you could go to look at all your IT systems,' Warshaw said. 'We've already eliminated some redundancies internally,' and the bureau is working closely with another Treasury agency, the Mint, to share applications that handle common business operations, such as consumer sales.
Warshaw said the bureau also uses its knowledge base to find and access resources, including human capital. 'It's all right there,' she said of the EA's user interface. 'You don't need to track someone down in the building to get that knowledge.'

EPA also is among the agencies considered furthest ahead in implementing an EA. Stouffer'who launched OMB's ongoing effort to create a governmentwide architecture during a 90-day detail earlier this year'said EPA is using its EA 'to articulate a new vision for the agency.' New applications are in the works, including a situation-analysis capability that lets EPA quickly glean environmental information from critical incident reports.

Tiemann said other agencies, including the Customs Service and the Veterans Affairs Department, use their architectures to get IT modernization and business-alignment efforts back on track and to generate better metrics. He said VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi 'is using enterprise architecture to bring real change to the agency. He's put the resources and people in place. They're about a year into the process.'

Flexible for growth

The FEA itself is coming along in pieces, and like other enterprise architectures, it can never be finished once and for all time, according to its proponents.

'The Federal Enterprise Architecture is, in effect, an architecture of architectures,' said Bob Haycock, deputy CIO of the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation, who has followed Stouffer on temporary detail to OMB as manager of the FEA Project Management Office.

The FEA is, he said, 'the first [organization] that cuts across the federal government.' Even though agencies aren't being told to adopt any particular framework, Haycock said, 'you can operate within all those frameworks. The dream is that at some happy day in the near future, they actually begin to fit together.'

The first part, the business reference model published in February and updated in July, delineates the lines of business and subfunctions performed by agencies. 'Each agency can take subfunctions in the [business reference model] from the FEA,' Tiemann said, but they will then likely have to add subfunctions that are unique to their agency.

By fall, Haycock said he expects to have the technical reference model and two other models ready. One is a performance reference model, which he described as a second component of the business reference model that shows the common outputs of business units. The other is an application capability reference model to describe applications that can be leveraged across business units, such as enterprise resource planning software.

The final part, a data and information reference model, is only in the conceptual stages, Haycock said.

The FEA could generate business for vendors that specialize in enterprise integration. 'I think there are some best practices that the government will be able to embrace with this architecture,' said Sam Maccherola, vice president of government sales at SeeBeyond Technology Corp. of Monrovia, Calif., which makes enterprise application integration software.

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Agencies will be better able to share and reuse resources, especially data and application software, and maintain security amid the greater openness required of e-government, Maccherola said. IT resources will become more scalable, and it will be easier to migrate to new systems incrementally and thus more economically.

Though the FEA technical reference model is incomplete, it's clear that component-based software standards such as Web Services, as well as popular data-exchange standards such as the Extensible Markup Language, are favored by FEA proponents.

'The Federal Enterprise Architecture Project Management Office and Federal Architecture Working Group are going to be pushing for more standardization, such as XML,' Tiemann said.

Language makes it real

'With XML, you close the gap between the theory and the practice of IT architecture,' said Owen Ambur, a systems analyst for the Fish and Wildlife Service and co-chairman of the CIO Council's XML Working Group. 'The [business reference model] itself is a sort of fiction. It doesn't have any reality until it's connected to the business models and schemas under which business is being conducted.'

Haycock, in fact, predicts that special software interfaces will have to be developed just to translate among agency architectures. And some FEA proponents concede that a lack of interoperability in commercial technologies could cause conflicts. Differences in the Java and Microsoft .Net implementations of Web Services standards such as the Simple Object Access Protocol, for example, could hinder sharing of software objects.

But Tiemann said that the government's already substantial purchasing clout will only be amplified if the FEA enables it to speak more with one voice, giving software vendors more incentive to meet the guidelines. 'I've heard CIOs talk about the federal government being Fortune 1,' Tiemann said.

Warshaw, for her part, wants to see a chief architect equivalent of the CIO Council to address such interagency coordination. It might help that the FEA Project Management Office has established a Solution Architects Working Group to help agencies design their architectures and coordinate activities, while encouraging the use of shareable, reusable software components. The group, which is also working on the technical sections of the FEA, said it plans to open a Web site at SAWG.gov.

'I don't think you're going to have a complete Federal Enterprise Architecture by the fall,' Stouffer said. She cited security complications from increased data sharing among agencies as one problem to solve.

In any case, IT managers shouldn't expect clear-cut marching orders from the FEA Project Management Office. 'They're not going to dictate specific technologies that agencies should invest in, in my opinion,' Stouffer said. 'That's why the SAWG was established. There's no set answer.'

David Essex is a freelance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.

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