Shutdown IT planning: A strategy for continuity of operations

Agencies must embrace automation and a hybrid cloud network model that allows critical services to remain up and running even with reduced staffing.

The federal government may have dodged a second shutdown this winter, but shutdowns have become part of ongoing budgeting debates. As of February 2019, 22 funding gaps in the federal budget have led to shutdowns, including 10 that were severe enough to lead to furloughs of government employees.

The latest round of furloughs had some particularly concerning ramifications for the nation’s IT infrastructure. Federal agencies preparing to mitigate risks associated with shutdowns should consider integrating automation into their IT strategies, through a four-phase approach for a smooth transition.

The IT ramifications of federal shutdowns

IT considerations were not part of the landscape when the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act established the federal budget process in 1976. Today, however, the idea of continuity of operations during federal shutdowns looms large among federal IT professionals.

Lloyd McCoy, manager of market Intelligence for immixGroup, wrote in a recent blog post that “government agency risk management strategies have traditionally emphasized the threat landscape and vulnerability.” Going forward, however, agencies can be expected to “take a hard look at their risk posture to determine whether they’ve adequately factored in the impact of government shutdowns,” he said.

This is where automation may play a role, according to McCoy. “Tools that reduce the reliance on people in day-to-day management of security operations (monitoring, remediation, patching) will resonate given the current state of fiscal and operational uncertainty,” he said.

What we’re talking about here, ultimately, is not just IT security, but risk mitigation, of which security is one part. During a shutdown, the biggest consequence is service interruption. And service interruption means risk -- risk of exposure, risk of citizen services not being provisioned, risk of defense operations not being available, risk of contractors departing to find other work and the risk that educational cycles and institutional knowledge will be lost.

Many agencies, both civilian and defense, are concerned about moving away from their traditional in-house networks. But to create a true strategy for continuity of operations, agencies must embrace the Cloud First and Cloud Smart principles that promote a hybrid network model.

What to do: Four steps to a smooth transition

So, what can agencies do with their existing infrastructures and how can they prepare themselves for the next, almost inevitable, government shutdown?

Unfortunately, there’s not much to be done with legacy infrastructure as it is. That’s one of the reasons that the government is looking so closely at the cloud. When an agency moves to the cloud, it’s using someone else’s IT. The provider is responsible for maintaining the infrastructure, with service-level agreements for uptime reliability and security. Cloud service providers are commercial companies and should therefore not be affected by federal shutdowns.

But if agencies still maintain their own IT infrastructures in-house, does that mean there is nothing to be done?

Not necessarily, as long as agencies are willing to take some steps to incorporate automation into their IT infrastructures that would allow them to operate an internal private cloud with a skeleton crew.

With that in mind, here are four important considerations to get to a level of automation that will mitigate risk and improve operations:

  1. Establish a “landing zone" to begin the migration journey. An agency running data center applications on legacy infrastructure should look to develop a small hybrid cloud -- for example, a couple of racks of equipment that builds a foundation of a miniature cloud -- and begin migrating applications into that new environment.
  1. Assess mission critical objectives. Hold sizing discussions related to service criticality -- that is, determine the actual IT services that will be provisioned within that landing zone. These services should be categorized as “mission critical,” “mission essential” or “general usage.”
  1. Focus on capacity planning. Create a plan to sunset legacy unautomated environments into a hybrid cloud environment. Later, after the private cloud has been built out, create a “shadow IT“ environment, in which virtual private cloud technology can emulate the public cloud.

    VPCs give IT professionals the flexibility to prepare for shutdown by contracting for a periodic usage of a public cloud. Emulating the public cloud in a private hybrid environment will allow agencies to more easily transfer applications and data into a public cloud during periods of shutdown.

    This solution leverages the best of both worlds. Agencies can push the same systems and connectivity of their hybrid infrastructure into a public cloud  when mission essential or non-mission essential personnel may not be available. After the shutdown, agencies can return to full operational capability in the hybrid cloud.

  1. Maintain network monitoring and analysis. It is important to continually monitor the internal hybrid environment with a full-stack approach. DMZ boundaries for network security, security policies and performance of consumer apps or citizen services consumption must all be secured and monitored in a public instance.

Monitoring both the public and private cloud allows IT pros to extend operational efficiency and continuity of operations from the on-premise network into the cloud provider.

That’s true for the VPC shadow IT network as well. VPCs used for compute and storage throughout the infrastructure will need security policies. But agencies must also understand what is going on for data transfer, systems conductivity and traffic monitoring in real time in both public and private clouds.

As government shutdowns are becoming standard practice in budget shortfall debates, agencies must do what they can to ensure that IT networks remain both reliable and secure. A strategy for adopting automation, leading toward true hybrid network operations, will enable critical services to remain up and running even with reduced staffing.

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