Gary Danoff | Another View: The future is now

Imagine life for civilian agency CIOs under one, metered federal IT

An abridged version of this commentary ran in GCN's Oct. 23, 2006, print issue. This is the full version.

Fast forward 10 years: Imagine CIOs 'buying' their agency's service-level agreements from the prevalent IT utility of the day'the Federal IT Grid. Instead of developing and managing individual agency financial, HR and even some agency-specific, citizen-focused systems, civilian agency CIOs shepherd the process between the Grid providers and Grid users to ensure agreed-to service levels are provided at a fair cost.

The idea isn't that revolutionary. Instead, it is the evolution of the Office of Management and Budget's Centers of Excellence and Lines of Business with their shared-services center concept. In fact, the Federal IT Grid could unify OMB initiatives with the GSA Infrastructure Optimization Initiative (IOI) and promote the most efficiency between them. If there is anything revolutionary about the Federal IT Grid, it is the positive change this could bring about in the agency budgeting process and the pooling of funds to buy more services.

Although it varies somewhat from agency to agency today, the role of the CIO in the capital budgeting process would change. Instead of gathering or writing OMB 300 business cases, the CIO would collect and then express agency IT business system requirements to OMB through federal business architects. These architects would be charged with delivering governmentwide services horizontally over the Federal IT Grid. They would work closely with CIOs, freeing them to finally serve the broader intent of Clinger-Cohen in creating the CIO position: manage information, people and processes related to the best functioning of the civilian agency they serve.

Now come back to the present: It is happening today! Apart from the change in the budgeting component, the Defense Department, through the Global Information Grid, essentially provides a metered Grid service today and saves DOD money by doing so. Charge-back mechanisms exist, and we all know the money is being spent.

Civilian agency CIOs who have the energy and vision to stay abreast of these trends'including the shift from government workers to IT contractors'will be in the best position to shape policy, and perhaps laws, that mandate use of a Federal IT Grid in the future.

What civilian CIOs might do differently

To prepare for this change, CIOs can begin thinking of their IT resources more like a utility, and think of themselves more as managers of a talent pool that's both shrinking and costing more. The latter is more difficult for two forceful reasons: First, CIOs are experiencing a 'knowledge capital drain' as more government career people are leaving and taking practice knowledge with them. Secondly, the line between contractor and government personnel is becoming more blurred.

What goes on the Grid? According to Tim Hoechst, CTO of Oracle's Public Sector, natural monopolies make the most sense when determining what applications to deploy over a Grid. This includes noncore applications such as HR and payroll, and others common to the back-end business of each agency, such as records management, credentialing and even in many cases, safety of life, or command and control. Perhaps agencies with certain domain expertise could actually become the service provider in that domain for the rest of the agencies, and serve as the interface agency for the federal architects. For example, what if the National Archives and Records Administration became the data warehousing service for the federal government?

On the other hand, not all core agency-specific, customer-facing applications would be deployed to the Grid. Hoechst argues 'mission-oriented systems such as FINCEN at the Treasury or Sentinel at the FBI will remain the domain of specific agencies for a long time to come.' Still, the technology and the applications exist in duplicate and triplicate in many instances within the same agency, not to mention within the same branches of government. We can do better.

The Grid in steps

Since all applications aren't created equal and since change happens in steps, Hoechst suggests four levels of service that agencies could acquire from the Grid:

1. Simple Shared Network Infrastructure: Representing the hard assets of data and telecommunications infrastructure. This would be akin to circuits leased from the Defense Information Systems Agency as part of the Global Computing Grid Bandwidth Expansion (GIG-BE).

2. Computing Infrastructure: Representing the shared network infrastructure plus any computing and grid storage infrastructure for widely used applications. For example: an Oracle database and security applications, or a SAP financial system.

3. Application Infrastructure: All of the above, with the applications and infrastructure outsourced to the Grid manager, but the agency still controls the processing. For example, an agency needs a financial or payroll system and doesn't care what it is; only the functionality is needed. The agency processes the payroll, but the infrastructure is run elsewhere.

4. Application Service Provider: The agency doesn't have a preference about which infrastructure is used, nor how the work is done, just that it's done with a measurable accuracy and in a timely fashion.

If the Federal IT Grid is to come to fruition, the following changes in the roles of CIOs and the federal business architects will need to happen:

Share in risk, profit, penalties and savings'the Grid will happen when there is profit incentive for the private sector and when they're perceived more as partners and less as a pool of commodity vendors. Current share-in-savings contracting models already make this possible.

Technology'storage virtualization, server virtualization, enterprise security, identity management are proven and available today. Employed judiciously by the federal Grid manager, technologies like these will continue to free CIOs and bring about changes in service levels that agencies can offer citizens and the government.

Institute horizontal federal business architects-- working at the OMB level, architects would interface with line of business owners manifested through the E-Gov act. These architects would be responsible for defining the needs of customers, intra-government and citizenry, and horizontal services, i.e. credentialing, student loan applications and identities.

The Tipping Point

Creation of the metered Federal IT Grid will eventually change the rules of the game. The question is when will the change happen? By leveraging the resources available on the metered Federal IT Grid to deliver services at a lower cost, the role of civilian CIO will become even more relevant to people in each civilian agency, especially for CIOs involved in HR planning, compliance, budgeting and IT resource planning. As with all other major changes in government, it will occur when all stakeholders, including Congress, the executive branch and agency heads, find the pain of the current situation to be greater than the pain of changing. How much pain are you in?

Gary Danoff is manager of Innovative Solutions for Network Appliance Federal Systems Inc. (

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