Federal agencies looking to accelerate modernization of their information technology systems should not overlook a seemingly basic step.
“The first thing that you should do is look at your portfolio, specifically your application portfolio, and rationalize it,” said Dave Vellante, chief analyst for the online publications SiliconANGLE and theCube. “One of the big problems that most IT organizations have, whether it’s commercial or government, is they never get rid of stuff.” Old applications and other IT detritus add friction to modernizing, and it all contributes to technical debt, he added.
Vellante said a good way to approach application rationalizing starts with identifying the keepers, “those applications that are driving value to the organization.” An obvious indication of value is simply how widely the application is used. Conversely, you can ask, what would happen “if [an application] disappeared tomorrow? How bad would that be?”
Obvious as app rationalization might seem, it requires bold leadership, said John Furrier, the founder and editor in chief of SiliconANGLE and theCube. That leadership must “identify the big bets that need to be made,” Furrier said. “As technology shifts, you’ve got to balance existing legacy technology, and then refactor for a future platform.”
Those “bets” include how to use of multiple commercial cloud computing services while consolidating other suppliers of technology components, such as development environments and databases.
“A lot of organizations are looking at how they can consolidate those redundant capabilities, and how they can potentially standardize on a single vendor that can do multiple things,” Vellante said. Doing so takes strong governance. And, “you’ve got to have a developer environment that can potentially work across multiple clouds,” he said.
He added that open application programming interfaces (APIs) “can allow for better integration across an ecosystem, and open entries into and exits from a particular platform.” Such a capability can help “futureproof” an agency’s systems.
Mind, and mine, the data
Data presents a recurring challenge for agencies trying to modernize their applications, if only because data generated by a retired application might still be needed by its replacement or another application altogether in the digital services era.
“Data now is the linchpin of all technology operations,” Furrier said. “If you don’t have a good data strategy, or a data strategy at all, then you’re going to be behind.”
He said such a strategy is inescapable.
“The big thing for the agencies that minimize their operational risk while expanding the innovation strategy,” Furrier said, “is mission critical data, application data, all data that they would need for developers.” Future applications will run on data and compute infrastructures marked by what he called higher-level cloud services like containers and Kubernetes.
Vellante added that while organizations will want to break down the so-called silos of data associated with each application, they won’t necessarily want to establish a single data platform.
“Different types of data platforms are better for certain things,” he said. “And you don’t want to try to stretch your data platform too thin. You want to architect the data strategy.” Think of data sets, he added, as “accessible nodes on a mesh, versus thinking about shoving everything into a giant, single data platform.”
With respect to modernization, government sometimes gets knocked for being slow to adopt new technology. Vellante pointed out one area in which the military is ahead of industry in capability. He named artificial intelligence “inferencing at the edge, where you don’t necessarily have internet connectivity” and with limited compute power.
“I think there’s a huge opportunity for disruption at the edge,” he said.
But Vellante cautioned agencies, “You really want to understand how your cloud partner and the associated data partners that you might be working with and technology partners, how they’re approaching the edge,” Vellante said. “You don’t want to create yet another silo at the edge.” Instead, ensure replication of the operational experience whether in the cloud, in an agency facility, or in an edge facility.