Future-proofing government IT

Dandelion

For many IT professionals, the most interesting and challenging non-functional requirement is to future-proof the solution. The industry mantra was to “built-to-last.” In reality, that’s a flawed philosophy. When you want to future-proof a solution, you make it “built-to-change.” In the new wave of digital transformation of enterprises, the philosophy “built-to-change” has enjoyed wide acceptance in the commercial sector, and is only now penetrating the government sector.

Let’s look at the state of play in government IT. How many public sector programs have been driven by replacing technology that has reached the end of its life? Not just with XP to Windows 7 or Windows 2003 server, but time and again, with products across the broad spectrum of vendors and open source too.

The typical scenario is something like this:

  • The IT service was instantiated using commercial-off-the-shelf software (COTS), deployed in hosted, on-premises solutions. The IT team significantly customized service descriptions, cyber security measures, technical architecture and IT interfaces with adjacent solutions. A shiny new IT service was born.
  • Funding was tight, so patches were applied, mostly, at least to operating systems, critical infrastructure and perhaps to applications. However, there were no major upgrades or releases. The shine fades, but mostly the users are happy, and the business gets the stability it wants.
  • But then the awful day dawns when you realize that somehow the systems didn’t keep pace. Now agility is lacking to meet new mission imperatives. Hardware is becoming tired, operating above sensible utilization levels and near capacity limits. Users are unhappy and there is a looming end-of-life date because the vendor has withdrawn support.
  • Now it all needs to be done again.

For users and IT, the relentless pattern was prolonged periods of stability, punctuated by episodic phases of significant change.

Unfortunately, anyone who has delivered a technology refresh for a major IT service knows how complex and costly it can be. There can be hundreds of interdependencies to unscramble, conflicting or not-yet-announced vendor support, significant architectural changes and long test, release and migration projects. Let’s not overlook user and business impacts ranging from acceptance testing and outages to loss of function and training for new systems and interfaces. By the time all of the impacts are recognized, there will be a desperate call for delays to the upgrade if possible and, failing that, even more desperate calls for backward compatibility to the old solution.

There is a better way.

21st century government organizations are operating in the cloud, as a cloud. That includes the rapid adoption of cloud-native software-as-a-service offerings. These are typically characterized as “evergreen,” which means the solution constantly improves and evolves — providing users with new features, experiences and functions in very rapid cadences. Behind the scenes, every element of the solution is constantly and automatically being rebuilt on a regular cadence of one to two weeks.

Now government is embracing “built to change.” For example, the UK MOD Defence as a Platform program has “evergreen” as one of three primary aims — “services procured under DaaP will be comprised of components that are always up-to-date, extending beyond what the user sees and encompassing the underlying infrastructure.”

The challenge for the public sector is that upgrading the underlying infrastructure, on its own, is costly and may deliver few visible benefits to the business. After all, for the most part, users are not aware of the paddling going on beneath the water-line.

Change that makes sense

So what changes make sense and what approaches can help future-proof the public sector workplace?

At one level, the move towards cloud, including platform and software as a service, is an attractive solution. Cloud makes infrastructure refresh someone else’s problem, abstracted out of view and baked into pay-as-you-go pricing.

Another approach comes from moving toward an API economy, with modern digital applications loosely federated and orchestrated for service. Though application test and release disciplines are still needed to protect IT services, loosely federated applications should be easier to maintain and update. Even modern platforms “born in the cloud,” such as Salesforce.com and ServiceNow, require skill and discipline to maintain the latest version.

However, neither of these are panaceas. The public sector has systems that won’t fit either model for the time being, due to requirements for scale, data residency, security accreditation or technology preferences. And the hardware problem won’t entirely go away — think distributed networks, user access devices and printers. Even Windows 10 and Office 365 won’t stop databases and firewalls from needing to be upgraded; quite the opposite, Windows 10 and Office 365 will drive continuous changes to network traffic patterns and volumes that will only be rendered manageable by significant new levels of automated controls in the network and supporting infrastructure.

Though there are more approaches than space to discuss them, an overarching question for the public sector is whether “evergreen” provides value for the money. Perhaps more important is a focus on the governance of IT architectures, roadmaps and integration, especially where multi-supplier ecosystems are being procured. The critical change needed is a move away from technically prescriptive procurements and toward acquisition based on mission outcomes. And a wide range of future-proofing approaches will be needed for the foreseeable future.

This article was inspired by the work of my colleagues Paul O’Hanlon and Paul Treece, at DXC Technology in the UK. They work in technical leadership roles, providing technical, program, service and cost, and commercial leadership to UK government.

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