How SAIC's 'Innovation Factory' & Red Hat pact explain the commercial IT push

How SAIC's new "Innovation Factory" to test and deploy technologies quickly with Red Hat as the initial partner feeds into the larger story of how federal systems integrators want to be a bridge to agencies for commercial tools.

As the noise of commercial disruption in federal IT only gets louder, government contractors are increasingly touting themselves as a bridge of sorts for federal agencies to bring those technologies into their organizations.

The bridge approach is how the former CSRA positioned itself through the self-touted “Customer Zero” mantra that included extensive relationships with commercial IT giants. That partnership network is a big part of what led General Dynamics to acquire CSRA. BAE Systems’ U.S. subsidiary and Raytheon’s services business are also building their commercial partnership networks that include Silicon Valley entities.

Add to the picture a new example of that collaboration method courtesy of Science Applications International Corp., which has opened a cloud-based “Innovation Factory” initially out of its Reston, Virginia, headquarters. Through the factory, SAIC is pushing for quicker technology delivery to its customers and also enlisted Red Hat as the initial partner for that initiative.

SAIC started the cloud-based factory as a test bed for employees to try out tools in areas like artificial intelligence and analytics amid the federal IT modernization push. Part of the overall goal is to further hone both an incremental delivery model and more agile development methodologies to keep pace with innovation, said SAIC Chief Technology Officer Charles Onstott.

But at a macro level and specifically for SAIC, both the factory and collaboration with Red Hat also help feed into a larger storyline about the evolving role of federal systems integrators in government IT.

Government services contractors such as SAIC are “wired to do business in a particular way,” Onstott said in a nod to more traditional and longer-cycled IT acquisitions. Whereas for Red Hat and others like it, he said, “They move at a rapid pace” on tighter integration timelines given the different pace and cadence of the commercial market.

But that commercial-like pace and cadence is what government agencies increasingly want. That only increases the pressure on large systems integrators to do things faster and differently given how they typically operate, Onstott said.

“The main intent is really to help drive the company to have capabilities that enable us to respond in these more fast and agile manners so we can deliver at the speed the customer wants,” Onstott said. “That’s a cultural change in how we think about acquisition internally, it’s a change in how our employees think about contract engagements.”

And in Red Hat specifically, Onstott said their long-term goals of enabling rapid tool delivery align in part through its OpenShift platform that is included in the Innovation Factory.

“Folks in the government already are invested in Red Hat technologies so we want to enable our customers to leverage investments they already made in those technologies, as well as adopt Red Hat’s newer technologies,” Onstott said.

Disclaimer: I spoke with Onstott on Oct. 26, two days before IBM said it would acquire Red Hat. Obviously we did not see it coming nor did they, or really anybody for that matter.

An SAIC spokeswoman gave WT this statement: “From our perspective, IBM’s intent to acquire Red Hat does not impact our agreement that is already in place with Red Hat. We will continue to work closely with Red Hat to determine whether any changes may come, but for now, there are no changes in our partnership agreement.”

It should be noted as ever that the dichotomy between the commercial and federal IT arenas is not an entirely new concept to think about. As Onstott pointed out, commercial technology products tend to be oriented toward solving a specific, targeted problem set and many providers focus more energy on the offering itself rather than the services around it.

Then there is also how federal customers have a mostly standardized regulatory rulebook and strategic playbook for contractors to operate with versus the more fragmented commercial landscape. Hence the systems integrator can come in to bridge those gaps, Onstott said.

“Most of our customers have fairly complex problems and so using one technology is not sufficient to solve whatever problem they have. We have to work with a variety of partners in order to pull together the right solution that meets their problems,” Onstott said. “That’s where I see the role of the system integrator: our ability to take a variety of technologies and integrate them into a complex solution.”

Also expect to see more commercial partners come into the fold of the SAIC Innovation Factory, Onstott told me. Some of those will be “mainstay technology providers” and there will also be ways for SAIC to “have access to a wide variety of emerging technology partners,” he said.

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