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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

An urgent IT upgrade for Uncle Sam

Across the federal landscape, agencies are taking solid steps to address the technology shortcomings that were exposed, sometimes glaringly, during the pandemic. The Defense Information Systems Agency, for example, has increased the speed of its Defense Information Systems Network by 10 times to create robust connectivity for combatant commands, according to a recent white paper from the Government Business Council (GBC). Meanwhile, the Small Business Administration has responded to system crashes that delayed loan processing early in the health crisis by increasing processor memory, establishing a pacing mechanism for loan applications and generally improving its technology infrastructure.

As numerous and well-documented as Uncle Sam’s pandemic-related IT system glitches were, they also have been instructive for agencies and their IT managers, helping clarify areas most in need of upgrading. What quickly became clear once the pandemic hit, according to a recent report from the Professional Services Council and Attain, is that “scenarios such as COVID-19 were generally not addressed in business continuity planning; some agencies were challenged, while others transitioned more readily to new modes of operation.”

While the pandemic has pushed the pace of progress, certain agencies still have work to do to bring tech infrastructure up to a standard that enables them to fulfill their missions and deliver the goods and services on which citizens depend, during a crisis and otherwise.

Where to start? As the PSC/Attain report concludes, “IT modernization begins with the transition from antiquated legacy-based systems to cloud-based systems and services.”  Many federal systems were showing their age prior to the pandemic. A 2019 report from the Government Accountability Office found that agencies were depending heavily on systems that “use outdated languages, have unsupported hardware and software, and are operating with known security vulnerabilities.”

Based on our work supporting government agencies in their network modernization efforts before and during the pandemic, here are four of the most effective and straightforward ways agencies can shore up their network capabilities:

1. Move to a high-capacity network that supports workers in varied access environments. A GBC survey found that 63% of federal government employees began working from home during 2020. This move to remote work requires additional network bandwidth, which some federal agencies clearly lacked when the pandemic hit, as they continued to rely heavily on bandwidth-limiting virtual private networks (VPNs) for telework. Those limits forced the DOD to prioritize employee access to internal networks, according to the white paper, and to block streaming services to maintain capacity for critical services.

Because remote work is likely here to stay, at least to some extent, agency networks need more capacity to support remote employees and preserve business continuity in a fast-changing environment. SD-WAN, short for software-defined wide-area network, is an increasingly popular network construct that fits that profile, with the ability to intelligently and securely route network traffic from remote locations to the cloud over the internet. SD-WAN deployment can be extended to include work-from-home employees, and its architecture enables agencies to use any combination of transport services -- MPLS, LTE, broadband, internet, etc. -- for remote access.

2. Replace legacy systems. The IRS is reported to have one of the oldest IT systems in government, dating back to the 1960s, according to the white paper. The time is ripe for agencies to replace legacy systems like this with more agile technologies so they can keep pace with the huge volumes of work being processed and their technology infrastructure can progress with their software. Cloud computing enables agencies to acquire new applications to meet evolving needs. If agencies face IT budget constraints or are limited in their ability to perform an immediate IT overhaul, they can make network upgrades that still support older protocols.

3. Deploy smart solutions that scale to fluctuating requirements. Between late March 2020 and late March 2021, the Department of Labor fielded some 108 million unemployment claims, compared to 5.1 million claims in the entirety of 2019, according to a report from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. Without modernized IT systems adequately scaled to demand, agencies jeopardize their ability to deal with massive spikes in demand for services during a crisis. A cloud-based network construct such as SD-WAN cost effectively provides that type of quick-scale capability. Agency IT decision-makers could also look to a scalable unified communications-as-a-service (UCaaS) solution to support remote work and provide a secure, seamless multi-channel virtual communications experience.

4. Bolster network security. With agencies adapting systems and networks to support remote staff, cybercriminals are targeting new vulnerabilities created by increased entry points to government networks. For agencies to respond to these threats, it’s critical they lean on some of the latest cybersecurity tech tools and practices. That includes embracing cyber-hygiene practices and security models like SASE (secure access service edge), the Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation program, encryption, web gateways, zero-trust network access and more. Thinking beyond the technology is vital for agencies looking to secure their networks from all angles.

Without modernized IT systems that readily scale to demand, government agencies jeopardize their ability to fulfill and deliver critical services when they’re needed most. Upgrades like these can position them to execute at the highest levels, even in the most unpredictable of times.

About the Author

Layne Levine is president of the enterprise business unit of Windstream.

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