Laying the foundation for next-generation IT operations can be a real challenge for federal agencies, which have decades of processes and procedures in place, legacy IT systems still using custom applications, and thousands of employees to retrain. Agencies also have unique tasks and responsibilities, carried out under the microscopes of congressional and Executive Branch oversight that make every major IT project high-risk.
IT leaders at three of those agencies – the Department of Defense, Social Security Administration, and Commerce Department – discussed their accomplishments in fiscal year 2014, which ended Sept. 30, and what they are looking to accomplish next, at CA Technologies’ Government Summit last month.
The magnitude of making changes, even positive ones, can be seen clearly at SSA, which disburses $850 billion in benefits each year, as Herb Strauss, deputy CIO and assistant deputy commissioner for systems made clear.
“In one sense [SSA] is a finely tuned machine, but the dissonance between that finely tuned machine and our ability to adjust that machine to meet the needs of the American public is [increasingly difficult],” Strauss said.
After 30 years SSA is completing the building, rollout, and commissioning of its new data center, he said. The agency already stores about 29 petabytes of data, which is growing about 15% per year, so designing and opening a data center is not an easy undertaking.
The second major undertaking at SSA is moving to wireless IP capability. The agency has approximately 12,000 retail establishments around the country that need to migrate to wireless. So far, “we’ve moved about 1,700 of our sites,” he said.
The third huge task is planning what to do with the agency’s many customized applications. “We’re a long-standing enterprise, we developed our apps over the course of years, driven by [legislative changes],” he said. “We’re rationalizing those apps [but] app portfolio management is a real challenge for us.”
The Department of Defense has its own special challenges, said Thomas Sasala, CIO of the Army Information Technology Agency (ITA).
Even though ITA is an Army agency, it is the common IT service provider for the Pentagon. In 2014 ITA began the rollout of a virtual desktop program based on a shared computing environment, Sasala said.
The agency also is now hosting its first multi-tenant cloud. “We spent the last part of the fiscal year scaling it out for production use [and] getting it certified,” he said. So far ITA has three customers signed up – the Joint Staff, Army headquarters, and the Marine Corps. The agency is working with organizations within the Office of the Secretary of Defense to see if they want to participate as well, Sasala added.
Another major program now under way is the creation of a preproduction environment. “It allows us to create [a dynamic] testing environment” using the DevOps model, he said. “It decreases our time to market dramatically.”
Unlike SSA, or even DoD, the Department of Commerce is “highly federated, with very disparate missions,” said Kirit Amin, the CTO and deputy CIO. For instance, DoC includes the Census Bureau, which conducts many kinds of statistical gathering, analysis and reporting, but is best known for the decennial survey of U.S. population. “We are looking at mobile technologies” for Census, he said.
Commerce has moved its email to the cloud and has completed its new headquarters building, Amin said. Commerce “has retired our BlackBerries, totally going smart phones,” he said. The agency also is evaluating cloud services, both hosting and cloud management services. “We built toward an acquisition model, did the RFI, got about 16 different [responses, and] are looking to go to procurement this year.”
Looking ahead, Strauss said SSA is “an execution organization – keep the train running and deliver well. The challenge is when you’re doing all those things you have very little time to think long term. Our challenge what we’re looking for in the future, is that we need an enterprise that meets the needs of the American people in 2025, 2030.”
At DoD, the biggest initiative is the Joint Information Environment, Sasala said. That affects ITA’s work because “our network is within the larger Pentagon network.” And technology is moving so fast that sometimes what starts out as cutting-edge gets overtaken. For example, “we finished the [Pentagon] renovation just as Wi-Fi was emerging.”
Even before control of Congress changed hands, Sasala warned that the 2016 budget “is an unmitigated disaster if it doesn’t get fixed. It’s going to hit everyone hard.”