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The American Rescue Plan is a win for federal IT modernization. Where should agencies start?

IT modernization continues to be an elusive goal for federal agencies. Addressing outdated and legacy systems is a complex and costly process, and agencies have long called for more money to support their efforts. Despite these challenges, there are signs of optimism.

Last summer, federal agencies responded to a request from Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) for insights into their IT modernization strategies and how Congress can help in the form of funding. Their pleas were heard.

Fast-forward to March 2021, when the newly signed American Rescue Plan set aside $2 billion for federal technology modernization efforts -- half of which will be allocated to high-priority projects through the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF).

It’s a win for many agencies. But given the complexity of modernization, what initiatives should federal CIOs prioritize? Here are four best practices to consider as agencies debate which challenges to prioritize first.

1. Prioritize network architecture modernization

Though attention is often focused on the need to migrate to the cloud, modernize applications or consolidate data centers, agencies should start their modernization initiatives at the network level. Many of the underlying infrastructure technologies on which government agencies have relied for years don’t cut it in a cloud-driven world and fail to support the demands of current and future networks.

Modern software-defined networks are key to providing the flexibility and scalability cloud environments need. SDN network architects can accommodate usage spikes and changing bandwidth requirements, eliminating bottlenecks.

With SDN, many functions of the network infrastructure are also automated, and configuration is simplified because SDN can manage thousands of network switches from a single, centralized controller. This reduces the burden on network administrators and enables agencies to elastically scale the network infrastructure as and when it’s needed to make smarter use of existing resources and budgets.

2. Link priorities to mission outcomes

Key to any IT modernization strategy is ensuring goals and priorities are linked to mission outcomes. For example, when moving workloads to the cloud, agencies must first identify high-value assets and consider how they would benefit from the improved performance, scalability, reliability and cost efficiencies the cloud provides. They must also drill down into how the service is delivered, who uses it, and the current capabilities and limitations of the technology.

To guide modernization efforts, agencies should identify leaders who have a granular command of the environment and system interdependencies and the impact of any changes to the developer, IT, security and user ecosystem. 

3. Ensure insight into network operations — even in hybrid infrastructures

As more agencies adopt hybrid IT networks, IT leaders must investigate and deploy solutions providing insight into network operations and applications no matter where they reside -- in the cloud or on-premises. This can be problematic. As data moves between the cloud and on-site infrastructures, blind spots can emerge. Agencies need tools designed to scale across these dynamic environments so they can achieve visibility into network performance across hybrid IT.

This holistic insight can also provide much-needed visibility into SDN network components -- such as the physical, logical and software layers -- in one place, rather than requiring IT teams to jump from tool to tool.

Only with this complete and clear perspective can network administrators ensure reliable, fast, and well-protected networks.

4. Plan and be patient

There are many examples of agencies that are excelling at IT modernization. The Small Business Administration, Social Security Administration, Departments of Defense and Education each outlined their modernization strategies in response to Hassan’s request. The agencies that are serious about their modernization plans are reaping the rewards. In its letter to Hassan, SSA stated it expects to realize efficiency gains of 20% by year three of its modernization efforts with a positive ROI of 12%. DOD also anticipates reduced operating costs through cloud migration and automation. 

Clearly, for IT modernization efforts to succeed, agencies must be meticulous in their plans. They must look to their peers, adopt best practices and acknowledge patience is key.

This approach has been fully embraced by the Department of Homeland Security. Following a rigorous audit, DHS adopted a phased approach to its modernization initiatives through 2024. The plan focuses on its top five priorities, including network modernization, data center consolidation and cloud migration. This mammoth undertaking will allow the department (with the help of TMF funds) to modernize its network and move operations to the cloud. DHS will also operate a hybrid computing environment as workloads migrate from its physical data centers.

Funding aside, agencies must focus on the big picture

While Congress-backed funding is a massive step in the right direction for federal IT modernization efforts, no one should lose sight of the fact that proper planning, patience and a clear understanding of the problems agencies are trying to solve will ultimately drive the most successful modernization initiatives.

About the Author

Brandon Shopp has been our Vice President of Product for Network Management since February 2018. He served as our Director of Product Management since November 2011, assuming the title and responsibilities of Senior Director of Product Management in July 2013. Previously, Shopp was the Vice President of Product Management at AlienVault, from August 2016 until February 2018 and the Senior Director of Products at Embarcadero Technologies, from July 2015 until August 2016. Shopp has a proven success record in product delivery and revenue growth, with a wide variety of software product, business model, M&A, and go-to-market strategies experience. Shopp holds a B.B.A. from Texas A&M University.


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