The ABCs of 2018 Federal IT Modernization: A to H

The White House issued its IT modernization plan last December and followed it with an ambitious program that could become a proving ground for rapidly overhauling IT infrastructure, data access and customer service. After years of talking about IT modernization, cybersecurity and migration to the cloud, federal agencies are now poised to ramp up the action.

Here, in A-B-C form, is what you need to know from A to H:

A is for Agriculture
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will be a sort of proving ground for implementing the Trump administration’s vision for the future high-tech, high-performance, customer-satisfying government. USDA announced in December 2017 it will collapse 39 data centers into one (plus a backup), and consolidate 22 independent chief information officers under a single CIO with seven deputies. The aim: reinvent the agency as a modern, customer-centered organization and provide its leaders with instant access to a wealth of agency data.

B is for Better Citizen Services
“It is imperative for the federal government to leverage … innovations to provide better service for its citizens in the most cost-effective and secure manner,” the report states – in just its third sentence. Yes, modernization should ultimately save money by reducing the billions spent to keep aging systems operational. And yes, it should help overcome the patchwork of cybersecurity point solutions now used to protect federal networks, systems and data.

USDA Secretary Sonny Purdue’s experience modernizing government IT during two terms as governor of Georgia from 2003-2010 convinced him he could achieve similar results on the federal level. “He really saw, in reinventing Georgia government, how IT modernization and delivering better customer service benefitted not only employees, but the people of the state,” Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Steve Censky said in a TV interview.

Among the agency’s goals: Increase access to information throughout the agency by means of online service portals and advanced application program interfaces.

C is for Centers of Excellence
USDA won’t be going it alone. Under the direction of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the agency will be the first to engage with a new set of experts at the General Services Administration (GSA). GSA is on an accelerated course to create five Centers of Excellence, leveraging both public and private sector expertise to develop best practices and standards that agencies can use for:

  • Cloud adoption
  • IT infrastructure optimization
  • Customer experience
  • Service delivery analytics
  • Contact centers

Jack Wilmer, White House senior advisor for Cybersecurity and IT Modernization, says the idea is to provide each agency’s modernization effort with the same core concepts and approach – and the best available experts. “We’re trying to leverage private sector expertise, bringing them in a centralized fashion, making them available to government agencies as they modernize,” he told Government Matters.

While GSA planned to award contracts to industry partners by the end of January – just 45 days after its initial solicitation – by March 5, no contracts had been awarded. Phase 1 contracts for assessment, planning and some initial activities should be finalized soon. Phase 2 awards for cloud migration, infrastructure optimization and customer experience are expected by the end of the year, Joanne Collins Smee, acting director of GSA’s Technology Transformation Service and deputy commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service, said at a March 1 AFCEA event in Washington, D.C.

D is for Data Centers
While all data centers won’t close down, many more will soon disappear. Modernization is about getting the government out of the business of managing big infrastructure investments and instead, to leverage commercial cloud infrastructure and technology wherever possible. But don’t think your agency’s data won’t be in a data center somewhere.

“What is the cloud, anyway? Isn’t it really someone else’s data center, available on demand?” says Stan Tyliszczak, chief engineer at systems integrator General Dynamics Information Technology (GDIT). “Moving to the cloud means getting out of the business of running that data center yourself.”

The White House splits its cloud strategy into two buckets:

  • “Bring the government to the cloud.” Put government data and applications in privately-owned and operated infrastructure, where it is protected through encryption and other security technologies. This is public cloud, where government data sits side by side with private data in third-party data centers.
  • “Bring the cloud to the government.” Putting government data and applications on vendor-owned infrastructure, but located in government-owned facilities, as the Intelligence Community Information Technology Enterprise (IC ITE) does with the IC’s Commercial Cloud Services (C2S) contract with Amazon Web Services.

Figuring out what makes sense when, depends on your use case and for most agencies, will mean a combination of on premise solutions, shared government services and commercial services in public clouds. “That’s the Hybrid cloud model everyone’s talking about. But it’s not a trivial exercise. Melding those together is the challenge,” Tyliszczak says. “That’s what integrators are for.”

E is for Encryption
Government cybersecurity efforts have historically focused on defending the network and its perimeter, rather than the data that travels on that network. As cloud services are integrated into conventional on premise IT solutions, securing the data has become essential. At least 47 percent of federal network traffic is encrypted today – frustrating agency efforts to monitor what’s crossing network perimeters.

“Rather than treating Federal networks as trusted entities to be defended at the perimeter,” the modernization report advised, “agencies should shift their focus to placing security protections closer to data.”

To do that, the government must improve the way it authenticates devices and users on its networks, securing who has access and how, and encrypting data both at rest and in transit.

“Now you’re starting to obfuscate whether your sensors can actually inspect the content of that data,” notes Eric White, Cybersecurity program director at GDIT’s Health and Civilian Solutions Division. “Because it’s now encrypted, you add another layer of complexity to know for sure whether it’s the good guys or the bad guys moving data in and out of your network.”

White notes that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is charged with solving this encryption dilemma, balancing the millions of dollars in investment in high-end network-monitoring sensors, such as those associated with the Einstein program, against protecting individual privacy. Enabling those sensors to see through or decipher encrypted data without undermining the security of the data – or the privacy of individuals – is a critical priority. DHS has commissioned research to develop potential solutions, including virtualizing sensors for cloud environments; relocating sensors to the endpoints of encrypted tunnels; creating man-in-the-middle solutions that intercept data in motion; or providing the sensors with decryption keys.

F is for FedRAMP

The Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) remains the critical process for ensuring private-sector cloud offerings meet government security requirements. Look for updates to FedRAMP baselines that could allow tailoring of security controls for low-risk systems, address new approaches to integrated cloud services with federal Trusted Internet Connection (TIC) services and consider common features or capabilities that could be incorporated into higher-risk systems with FedRAMP “high” baselines.

Importantly, the report directs the General Services Administration (GSA), which manages FedRAMP, to come up with new solutions that make it easier for a software-as-a-service (SaaS) products already authorized for use in one agency to be accepted for use in another. Making the process for issuing an authority to operate (ATO) faster and easier to reuse has long been a goal of both cloud providers and government customers. This is particularly critical for shared services, in which one agency provides its approved commercial solution to another agency.

G is for GSA
Already powerfully influential as a buyer and developer for other agencies, GSA stands to become even more influential as the government moves to consolidate networks and other IT services into fewer contracts and licensing agreements, and to increase the commonality of solutions across the government.

This is especially true among smaller agencies that lack the resources, scale and expertise to effectively procure and manage their own IT services.

H is for Homeland Security
DHS is responsible for the overall cybersecurity of all federal government systems. The only federal entity mentioned more frequently in the White House modernization report is the Office of Management and Budget, which is the White House agency responsible for implementing the report’s guidance.

DHS was mandated to issue a report by Feb. 15, identifying the common weaknesses of the government’s highest-value IT assets and recommend solutions for reducing risk and vulnerability government-wide. By May 15, the agency must produce a prioritized list of systems “for government-wide intervention” and will provide a host of advisory and support services to help secure government systems. DHS also owns and manages the National Cybersecurity Protection System (NCPS) and the EINSTEIN sensor suites that capture and analyze network flow, detect intruders and scan the data coming in and out of government systems to identify potentially malicious activity and, in the case of email, blocking and filtering threatening content.

Look for next week’s edition of GovTechWorks for Part 2: Modernization from I to Z. In Part 2, we outline how infrastructure among government agencies will be impacted and streamlined by modernization, as well as discuss the fate of legacy systems and their maintenance budgets, and the major role the Office of Management and Budget will play in overall implementation.

Next week: Part 2, Modernization I-Z.

 

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