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How to Transform DISA’s 'Innovation Wish List' Into Reality

Readily available innovations exist today that can help information technology managers solve key problems.
Solutions exist for information technology mangers that could boost effectiveness. Credit: USMC photo by Jeremy Beale

Solutions exist for information technology mangers that could boost effectiveness. Credit: USMC photo by Jeremy Beale

Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) Director Lt. Gen. Robert J. Skinner opened last year’s TechNet Cyber 2022 event by unveiling a technology “wish list,” asking industry leaders to help him achieve it. “Every great innovation started when somebody said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if…’” Lt. Gen. Skinner said.

Among the wish list items: The ability to maximize current capabilities and validate that systems are running as expected/needed. “We have to jump to the future, but we have to optimize the capabilities that we have,” Lt. Gen. Skinner said, “then we have to simplify systems for operators. … Help us do that.”

His statement reflects the challenges most agencies face, as revealed in our research: Seven of 10 federal information technology managers say it’s either “very important” or “critical” to track, monitor and report on digital assets. But nearly four of five struggle to detect and correct the root causes of systems issues, and the same number encounter difficulties when attempting to view and manage complex IT environments.

Yet, readily available innovations exist today that can help these managers solve these problems—and transform DISA’s “wish list” into reality—and do the same for agencies across-the-board.

“See all” superpowers. To borrow from Gen. Skinner’s remarks, ‘wouldn’t it be cool’ to acquire an actual superpower in real life? Fortunately, we can. The ongoing development of what is called deep and broad observability is enabling IT teams to profoundly expand their visibility, awareness and control of on premise and multi-cloud environments, 24/7/365.

This superpower is emerging as essential as agencies swiftly move forward in their digital transformation. They can no longer “make do” with a standard mainframe and server set-up. They are bringing on thousands of machines, systems, applications and supportive infrastructure—many running in intricate cloud and container environments—and they all depend upon each other to function.

At a federal level, teams need to obtain precise answers about the performance of every application and system no matter where they are. They must observe and capture all data from logs, metrics and end-to-end transactions generated from tools supporting critical functions including aircraft refueling, intelligence gathering, battlefield communications, vaccine inventories, supply chain status, agriculture crop health, disaster response, etc.

Deep and broad observability takes agencies to this level of end-to-end visibility. It enables team members to “see all” when it comes to the performance and security of applications, the underlying infrastructure, and user experiences. With this, they can more effectively collaborate and deliver value—with much less time and effort, thus arriving at the simplicity that DISA seeks.

"Seven of 10 federal information technology managers say it’s either “very important” or “critical” to track, monitor and report on digital assets. But nearly four of five struggle to detect and correct the root causes of systems issues. Yet, readily available innovations exist today that can help these managers solve these problems."

Artificial intelligence (AI). Once team members “see all,” they should deploy solutions that leverage this information to make better choices about what to maintain, improve and protect. It’s not enough to know about all of the systems, applications and infrastructure that are functioning and interacting in today’s nontraditional perimeter enterprise. Agencies have to make positive, actionable decisions from all of the data.

That’s where AI steps in, to process billions of dependencies in real time and continuously monitor the IT environment for system degradation and performance anomalies, and then generate accurate answers with root-cause determination, prioritized by business impact.

As with observability, automation plays an indispensable role here, with the ever-escalating volume, velocity and variety of data. Even the most fundamental IT ecosystems now move at speeds beyond the capacity of humans to navigate, process and respond to on their own. Automation and AI eliminate mundane, manual-intensive tasks, i.e., further establishing the simplicity that Gen. Skinner and other government leaders say they need. This also affords teams the time to focus on more strategic and innovative projects.

It's encouraging to see that agencies are recognizing the potential impact of AI and are making spending decisions accordingly: About two-thirds of federal IT managers participating in our research consider AI as a valuable component of their modernization initiatives. Nearly one-half say AI is a “high/essential” investment priority.

These wish lists are great. But what’s really “cool” here is that tech company innovators are already achieving what DISA and other agencies are asking for. If government and industry can take the next step—by collaborating frequently and openly together in the spirit of a fully realized partnership to implement and advance deep and broad observability and AI. Gen. Skinner and his fellow federal leaders will see their wishes come true sooner rather than later.

Willie Hicks is a chief technology officer in the public sector group at Dynatrace.