The Changing Landscape of The Federal Enterprise
Reading the daily headlines, one would think that everything is business as usual in Washington. Democrats and Republicans still fight each other's agendas. Politicians are under fire for financial misdeeds and extramarital activities. All the usual stuff.
But underneath the political surface, a fundamental change is under way in how the federal government handles its day-to-day information technology operations. Changes such as electronic government initiatives are being made possible by major shifts in the basic enterprise computing infrastructure.
"The federal marketplace is undergoing a transformation from agency-centric, legacy-based, stove-piped systems and applications to a more private-sector model," said Pete Scalone, area manager for the federal division for Computer Associates International Inc., Islandia, N.Y.
John Repetto, government channel manager for system management tool vendor Executive Software Inc., Burbank, Calif., agreed.
"Government is striving to operate and be recognized as a commercial best-practices entity," he said. "It wants to shed the perception that it uses old technology and is slow to respond to technological changes. While it may not be 'bleeding edge,' it is moving toward the front of the curve when it comes to its IT direction."
Achieving this transformation is a gradual process involving countless public- and private-sector actions. It opens the door for vendors of all types to take commercially oriented products, adapt them as needed and begin to expand into the federal marketplace.
Perhaps the most obvious change on the federal landscape is the growth of interagency IT projects. No longer is each agency being permitted to establish itself as an independent fiefdom.
This change has taken place gradually because of the growing awareness of the need to view government as a single, albeit massive, enterprise. For the past four years, the federal government's Chief Information Officer Council has pushed coordination among agencies to eliminate redundancy and take advantage of shared best practices.
This new era of cooperation is already bearing fruit. Last fall, FirstGov.gov went online as the first all-encompassing government portal. Since then, it has been joined by more than 60 others, covering topics such as federal business opportunities (www.fedbizopps.gov
), nutrition (www.nutrition.gov
) and smart cards (www.smart.gov
). Many more are under development.
Setting up joint electronic government services is, however, much more complicated than doing the same thing in the private sector. While many commercial e-business concerns have the resources and flexibility to build and incorporate an entirely new system from scratch, the federal government has invested so much into existing equipment and systems that it is difficult, if not impossible to make a complete switch.
"It is simply cost prohibitive and impractical for the federal government to toss out what they have now and start over," said Craig Harper, federal operations manager for BMC Software Inc., Houston. "The future of federal enterprise computing lies in integrating existing systems and services. Solutions that can cross platforms are essential to effective current and future federal IT operations."
Computer Associates' Scalone said that both Congress and the executive branch are beginning to understand the value of the e-business model as it applies to the federal government.
The Government Paperwork Reduction Act, e-SIGN legislation and the Government Information Security Reform Act, for instance, are catalysts for accelerating the transformation of government services. They not only promote e-government initiatives, but also address critical management, security, privacy and risk-management challenges that must be addressed to establish online government systems and services that users can trust.
But government needs outside help to make these changes. While the federal government was once the leader in technology, the private sector has passed it by. This, coupled with a decline in the number of federal IT employees, means agencies must now turn to commercial products rather than building their own systems.
"In looking to the commercial sector, government is fostering a true partnership with the IT industry and a new public-private-sector model," Scalone said. "This relationship will have enormous benefits for all sides, but will challenge industry in addressing the special requirements of the public sector in terms of security, privacy, trust and sound stewardship."
In addition to more willingness to work with commercial vendors, Executive Software's Repetto said there is a large migration toward the same Microsoft products that have become a de facto standard for business.
"We are seeing the adoption of Windows NT/2000 as the network operating system standard in most Defense Department and civilian agencies," he said.
This is a necessary step, as it makes it far easier for the agencies to buy commercial, off-the-shelf software, as well as reducing the time and cost of customization, Repetto said.
This trend of using commercial best practices will continue, as new legislation wends its way through Congress and becomes law. The E-government Act of 2000, for example, increases coordination by creating a federal CIO. It also mandates a significant budget to fund cross-agency programs.
"More centralized management of IT will provide an environment where IT companies can compete based more on merits instead of entrenched interests," Scalone said. This more competitive environment will spur growth and interest in government IT projects and eventually bring government infrastructure up to par with the private sector in terms of enterprise-class organizational systems and operations.
"The market will continue to grow as the e-business trends seen in the private sector are mapped to an e-government platform and as the experience curve accelerates uptake of these new models," Scalone said.
"Citizens as well as government leaders will simply expect that the best examples of private-sector service delivery and management will be applied to government," he said. "In that respect, it is possible that there will eventually be no distinction made in terms of basic business functionality available to citizens, taxpayers or consumers."
For the next several years, however, e-gov modernization and integration may be forced to operate in the teeth of budgetary constraints. Instead of gleaming new equipment, many agencies may be forced to eke out another year or two of operation from existing machines, while the money goes to citizen-centric and interagency
projects. The question is how do you keep these systems running at peak performance?
"After several years of aggressive spending on hardware and software, government is taking a more active role to ensure that all resources are completely and effectively used," said Paul Hill, vice president for business development and marketing at San Jose, Calif.-based Platform Computing Inc., which produces distributed computing software for the high-performance computing market.
In July, Platform Computing finished installing software on supercomputers at five Defense Department High Performance Computing Modernization Project sites. Hill said that once in use on all 600 processors at the nine sites covered by the contract, the Defense Department will gain about 1.1 million high-performance computing hours per year by distributing the workload between the supercomputer and cluster sites.
This is an excellent example of the trend toward more economical use of resources. For the Defense Department, this approach is far cheaper than building a couple of additional teraflop computers.
Most government installations, though, have client-server networks rather than supercomputers. But like their supercomputing relatives, Windows-based networks are also being subjected to budget cuts. In response, managers are looking for simple software solutions that can boost workstation and server performance, thereby reducing support costs and extending the useful life of equipment.
This has led to two emerging trends among government users: a growing reliance on Windows 2000 certified applications, and large-scale government deployment of network defragmentation software.
GartnerGroup, the Stamford, Conn., research firm, reports that Windows 2000 networks that use only Windows 2000 certified applications experience total cost of ownership reductions of as much as 27 percent.
GartnerGroup also points out the critical difference between Windows 2000 certified and Windows 2000 ready. While an application that is "ready" will probably run OK on a Windows 2000 machine, there is no vendor guarantee.
Windows 2000 certified applications, on the other hand, can be trusted to run flawlessly and integrate seamlessly in an enterprise setting, because these applications have been subjected to a grueling certification checklist that addresses compatibility, safety, manageability and reliability.
VeriTest Labs conducts the testing, and Microsoft verifies the results.
One example of a Windows 2000 certified product that is finding favor in government circles is Diskeeper by Executive Software. It offers a way for an agency to save money on Windows NT or 2000.
By regularly defragmenting the hard disks on all servers and workstations on a network, agencies can achieve performance gains ranging from 61.9 percent to 219.6 percent, according to independent tests conducted by National Software Testing Labs, Conshohocken, Pa. The test results are available at www.nstl.com/Content/content.htm
"Defragmenters are rising sharply in popularity as people realize they can often deliver comparable performance gains to hardware upgrades at a fraction of the cost," said Paul Mason, vice president of infrastructure software research at market research firm International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass. "Just as you need virus protection to protect from file damage, every machine needs defragmentation software to protect it from performance degradation."
According to Executive Software's Repetto, Diskeeper is the only defragmenter certified by Microsoft for use with Windows 2000 Server and Workstation.
"Just as is occurring in the commercial sector, government agencies are now beginning to realize that defragmentation is a vital issue to address in all of their servers and workstations throughout the enterprise," he said.
Recent government sales of Diskeeper include: the White House, which bought Diskeeper for 3,000 workstations; the Coast Guard, which put it on 2,000 servers and 20,000 workstations; and the Social Security Administration, which bought 115,000 licenses.
Enterprise computing trends, such as agency integration, adoption of commercial best practices and the harnessing of tools that extend the life of equipment, are clearly influencing the federal computing landscape.
As a result, shorter implementation times and government-oriented products are becoming widely available at low cost, opening the door to broader e-government capabilities.
"While there is no panacea to solve all the issues and problems raised by the complex policy, choices which must be made in a democracy," Scalone said. "In terms of service delivery, security, privacy and citizen trust, technology will continue to support and to reshape dramatic improvements in government management and operations."