Weaving a Common Thread in Government Information Technology

November 2011
By Kent R. Schneider, SIGNAL Magazine

Government information technology is an area rife with issues for discussion. These include enterprise initiatives, mobile computing, the cloud in all its forms, cybersecurity and many more. However, one activity is the key to making all government information technology useful and secure: the common operating environment.

Everyone knows the objective. We want all the information we need whenever we need it, wherever we need it, on any platform—and securely. In addition, we want to be able to develop applications inexpensively and quickly and then store them where they can be accessed and downloaded easily. These desires are not too much to ask. So, with the enabling technologies available today, what are the obstacles?

One obstacle is that people are not sharing the same environment. There are more operating environments than there are organizations. There is no commonality across enterprise boundaries. Even within departments, operating environments are different. Why? Because the current systems were not developed with cross-boundary information sharing in mind. For years, everyone focused on interoperability, which has made systems even more complex and often reduced information sharing to the lowest common denominator.

What is needed is agreement across government on standards, architectures and business rules that will create a federal common operating environment. This environment has to be adaptable to all platforms and operating systems. Applications must adhere to a strict set of interface criteria, and developers’ toolkits must be made available.

This may seem as difficult as persuading Congress to work together, but a reasonable first step would be to have major departments establish common operating environments. The Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would be great places to start. The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) is more than capable of providing the necessary common services—for both departments if they could agree. Progress already has been made within DISA and within some of the departments and agencies of both the Defense Department and the DHS.

Another huge part of the problem is the proliferation of networks and network enclaves. Even if common computing environments could be sorted out, current network architectures stand in the way of effective information sharing. In a conversation this week, a senior intelligence officer shared with me that his vision is to have a single network that meets all network needs. Failing this, he said, we are making our work very difficult. Just getting to one classified network and one unclassified network would be a huge step in the right direction.

The impact of network issues cannot be overstated. Recently, the U.S. Army, as executive agent for the Defense Department, had been implementing enterprise email. It had to pause because network issues were preventing totally successful implementation. The problem is not the email technology or the ability to create global directories. The problem is the lack of transparency in the network. Similar problems will be encountered with any global enterprise services the Defense Department or the DHS want to implement.

While I am using the U.S. example of this problem of enterprise rationalization, the same difficulties exist everywhere. In my conversations with the NATO command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) leadership, I hear clearly that NATO suffers from the same problems. Look how long it took to develop and implement the Afghan Mission Network—and it is not a perfect solution. Conferences in the Asia-Pacific region have pointed to similar problems. I want to make sure that our international members understand that they need to work on the same issues.

The bottom line is that we need to focus on common operating environments and network consolidation/rationalization, or else all the efforts underway with cloud, mobile computing and platform independence will produce only intra-enterprise results, and then only at the agency level. Our people want and deserve better. They know it can be done because they have these capabilities at home. The excuse that the government’s requirements are unique just does not wash anymore. Furthermore, if mission needs do not fully motivate us, then consider the financial picture. The savings achieved through eliminating duplication could go a long way toward covering budget reduction requirements.

Think about it.

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