New Contracting Tools to Jumpstart Federal IT Transformation

By David Young

Discussions about the nation’s critical infrastructure usually focus on aging networks, some more than 50 years old. A most stunning fact was highlighted in a recent a Government Accountability Office report, which revealed some Defense Department control systems still use 8-inch floppy disks to store data related to nuclear operations.

Government efforts to modernize the information technology infrastructure have been going on for years, yet many agencies continue to spend the majority of their IT budgets on legacy technology. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has designated November as Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience (CISR) month to raise awareness around these essential systems.

Procurement evolution
As of April, federal agencies had bought $1.03 billion in network and telecommunications services under the General Service Administration’s (GSA) Networx, a contract vehicle introduced to help agencies access a broad range of domestic and international network services. It helps agencies buy the latest in networking technology while keeping costs down. While Networx provides agencies a foundation to modernize IT infrastructures, it was drafted a decade ago and now cannot satisfy all agency IT needs.

Enter Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions (EIS), the GSA’s follow-on contract to Networx when it sunsets in 2020. EIS will debut in 2017, giving agencies a three-year window to make the transition. It promises to open doors for agencies, including access to cloud and expanded security services—two areas critical to the future viability of government agencies.

Transformation versus transition
EIS also will provide an important opportunity for government agencies and critical infrastructure: a chance to transform IT to handle the many demands of modern society while future-proofing technology. Currently, many agency networks are a patchwork of old and new systems, cobbled together in a way that makes them ripe for a number of issues, from poor security to lack of efficiency and often, terrible end-user experiences. With EIS, agencies could do a like-for-like transition, substituting old technology with new, an approach that can result in a smaller upfront investment and let federal IT managers bring network technology into the 21st century.

The advantages of transforming technologies during the EIS transition period are tremendous:

  • GSA provides a number of support resources to help agencies implement new technologies.
  • It has established an ample three-year window for the transition from Networx to EIS, giving agencies plenty of time to buy and implement newer network technologies.
  • If they transform now, agencies can minimize the impact on end users by reducing future needs for a technology refresh.

Network technologies every agency should have
What might transformation look like? It will vary by agency, but a few key network technologies every agency should employ include:

  • Ethernet: Many agencies still use TDM/SONET for data transmission, which comes with a number of drawbacks, including lack of scalability to meet fluctuating bandwidth requirements. Ethernet has a flexible infrastructure that can scale bandwidth between 1 Mbps to 10 Gbps without the need for new equipment.
  • Network-based security: Just as cyber attacks have become more prevalent and sophisticated, so have security tools. EIS can take advantage of available advanced security services, with particular importance placed on cloud-based network security programs.
  • Cloud computing: Agencies produce and store a colossal amount of data and no longer can rely on data centers and more personnel to manage it all. An emerging number of cloud options meet the rigorous security demands of the government. This is perhaps why some are speculating government agencies are adopting cloud at a faster rate than corporate America.

Critical infrastructure is only as good as its IT infrastructure
A chain is as strong as its weakest link, and the same is true of the 16 critical infrastructure sectors. Think about this dichotomy: Smartphone users update the software almost quarterly, yet systems responsible for keeping the lights on, the water running and protecting society still run on what many consider ancient technology.

Given their importance to our overall well being as a nation, officials must be vigilant in examining every single nut and bolt of critical infrastructure operations. Agencies with patchwork quilts of various hardware, software and connectivity solutions are at a much greater risk for security and reliability issues. It’s essential agencies take advantage of the EIS contract vehicle when available next year.

David Young is regional vice president over the Government Markets Group at Level 3 Communications.

This is the second in a series of blogs this month addressing DHS’ Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience month. The first blog centered securing the infrastructure within the nation's critical infrastructures.

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