2018 was supposed to be a year of IT transformation and modernization. But, in the face of budget surprises, shifting priorities and multiple cyber-attacks, just how far did federal agencies get with their modernizations plans?
To find out, we spoke with Patrick Hubbard, Head Geek for SolarWinds, for his insights on what worked, what’s not-quite-there yet, and the legacy of a volatile year.
(No time to read but still want to hear Patrick’s insights? You can find his podcast on the topic here.)
Government Technology Insider (GTI): There’s been much discussion about modernizing government. Of course, that’s a massive task. What interesting technologies were implemented in 2018, both upgrades and new tech?
Patrick Hubbard, SolarWinds (PH): What’s interesting about 2018 was: 2017 was the year that, I think, everyone, especially federal government, realized that hybrid, the combination of public cloud/private on-premises, is not going away. And then, 2018 was the year where we really did roll up our sleeves and dive in and have to begin to implement it.
So, I think you said a really important word there, which is “upgrade.” And, when you consider modernization, like the first phases of cloud, especially ‘lift and shift’, with some of the public cloud providers and then maybe even some of the cloud technology that a larger department or organization might implement themselves, was they were either taking applications that can be moved wholesale and pushing them into new environments or they were implementing new systems that were based on newer technologies, or that had maybe lower visibility, or were really well-funded, and that makes it pretty easy to take advantage of all the latest green field, clean sheet technologies that are offered by these platforms and vendors.
But, what’s happened in 2018 is that we’ve started to get into the meat of modernizing existing systems. And so, if you think about the complexity of this, instead of standing up something that’s a relatively atomic system in the cloud versus integrating into a department’s organizations, into their existing data centers, to really operate in a hybrid mode means that they have to get really serious about things like governance and security and network performance because now you’re completely dependent on WANs and inter-component links in distributed applications that you didn’t have to, in a way. The focus is on that technology, especially for federal customers where you have the advantage of not exactly ‘not competing’ but instead, ideally, a service is being offered because it is the best service for its category.
So, the opportunity for agencies to share, to collaborate was much, much better than it was in 2017. Most of that work that we’re seeing from our side is again about security. It’s about improved visibility, being able to focus on data no matter where it is. And, also, a lot more focus on log management and event and telemetry tracking.
GTI: Along the way, were there any surprises, unintended consequences, better than anticipated results or anticipated updates that didn’t actually happen?
(PH): One of the great things about the federal budget — I don’t know that we in technology always think of it this way — but having to justify budget years in advance or have major initiatives that really do require a lot of thought and a lot of planning, a lot of times on the commercial side of business is seen as being ‘you’re almost a late adopter,’ right? You’re coming late to technology.
But what’s interesting about this period of hybrid IT is that taking a moment, especially when you are jumping into very different types of technology or combining things that really maybe were never intended to be put together, but a vendor kind of waved their hands at the problem and said, “Don’t worry you’ll find a way to integrate these two things” — that takes a little bit of planning. And so, there’s a lot of agencies that have been able to take advantage of watching some of those early adopters ‘ projects or maybe even sort of ‘sentinel projects ‘ by other teams and learning from them and applying them.
So, they’re able to apply their budgets much more effectively. And the other thing is that now there’s a lot of different technology solutions that are much better suited to federal budgets than they were in the past. The days of bringing in a very large vendor with a large professional services team to sit for two years in the IT operation with the department are long gone. And so, finally tools are available now that really will fit into any department’s budget. So, it really does allow technology to help any organization of any size.
GTI: We know that Congress boosted budgets in the spring of 2018, and of course agencies were able to make use of the Technology Modernization Fund. As you said, the timeframe for budgeting really has an effect. So, what does all this do to your whole planning cycle?
PH: The TMF has been really handy. Actually, having dedicated modernization funds –and we’re not talking a little funding here, we’re talking about ten million dollars for USDA, Energy picked up, I think, about 15 million. HUD got 20 million for application migration. That one is interesting because it’s specifically away from mainframes. In a lot of cases, these budgets are targeted, really are earmarked for a particular project.
And it’s always helpful for an organization to be able to use dedicated funding, because too often you know we sort of treat our I.T. budgets as sort of a general fund and we start planning at the end of the year or early in the year for what we’re going to do with our budget for that fiscal cycle. And by the time you go to deploy that technology, a lot of times it gets used for something else. But in this case if you’ve been doing everything that you can for the last five years to move away from mainframe applications, to have an earmarked budget makes it a lot easier to make sure that you’re going to deliver on that initiative. So, a lot of that funding has really been helpful, and I think it’s one of the reasons we’ve seen so many of these projects move forward.
GTI: Do you have any final thoughts on 2018 ‘s legacy?
PH: I think the most interesting thing in 2018 is how much initiative we see on the part of agencies to become proactive, even going so far as to really seek out opportunities for self-service. So instead of relying on a vendor who’s there on site between the hours of 9:00 and 4:00, Monday through Thursday, instead being able to go and get bids, being able to go and take advantage of online classes, being able to test and implement and iterate on technology initiatives on their own, and really starting to think of the tools that they use as tools.
Yes, they are solutions and yes, they are integrated, and the idea is that you are trying to take advantage of using all of them together in them in a more efficient way than you would when using ‘swivel chair integration ‘ with a whole bunch of separate tools. But it really is about being able to empower agencies to complete projects on their own, to really be self-sufficient, and give them the freedom to do what they really wanted to do, which was focus on innovation and transformation goals, not on dealing with learning yet another set of technologies and then delaying the project yet another year.