In U.S. government agencies of all sizes, adding infrastructure to data centers already bursting with diverse platforms and vendors is giving way to greater use of cloud services and edge computing. Urgent requirements to improve agility and cybersecurity are helping fuel modernization. So is a substantial infusion of cash earmarked for federal IT spending in the Biden administration’s proposed 2022 budget.
Historically, agencies have been “cobbling systems together from other sources of funding and buying siloed infrastructure,” said Kanuj Behl, a cloud architect at Nutanix. “Now, with more funding, government agencies can look at enterprise-wide solution architectures for agile systems…instead of being limited by legacy silos and three-tier [data center] architectures.”
The Biden administration’s May request for $58.4 billion for IT at non-military government agencies in 2022 and an executive order on cybersecurity aimed at bolstering the defense of vital U.S. institutions could portend near-term, dramatic IT improvements for federal agencies. The proposal includes adding $500 million to the U.S. Technology Modernization Fund, building on the $1 billion added earlier this year.
Post-Pandemic IT Mindset
Before COVID-19, agencies tended to procure IT infrastructure specifically to support individual applications, Behl explained.
“The focus was on what application to deploy, then getting some infrastructure to go with it,” he said.
As apps grew and agencies deployed tools for monitoring and management, infrastructure requirements rose in step, but compute, networking, and storage resources required long lead times to acquire and deploy.
Each application silo required IT specialists and contributed to what became a hodge-podge of different hardware, vendors, software, and interfaces. All of this fed a perception that government agencies were expensive, complex, slow-moving bureaucracies.
Today, decision-makers understand that agencies need to be more agile and run leaner. It’s also imperative that they address escalating cybersecurity threats with radical improvements to digital defenses and incident response measures.
Part of the solution is using a common cloud platform that agencies can holistically manage and secure, said Behl. The Biden budget proposal, in part, supports “agency migration to secure, cost-effective commercial cloud solutions and shared services.”
From ‘Cloud First’ to ‘Cloud Smart’
The uptake of cloud in the U.S. government, however, is nuanced because agency decision-makers tend to experience initial sticker shock, said Behl. Deployments are being made on a case-by-case basis as agencies embrace “cloud smart” over “cloud-first” approaches, carefully deliberating as to the optimum infrastructure for each workload based largely on data sensitivity and cost, he said.
The result is that hybrid on/off-premises cloud use is on the upswing. According to 2021 research from government news analysis organization MeriTalk, 92% of federal IT managers agree that a hybrid cloud is the best operating environment for a resilient government. In addition, more than two-thirds (67%) said COVID-19 accelerated hybrid cloud adoption in their organizations by a year or more.
The first big move to the cloud was spurred by the desire of U.S. government IT organizations to get out of the hardware management business and focus on the applications that support their agency’s operations and overall mission, said Behl.
“Some agencies said they were planning to go a hundred percent cloud,” he said. “But then they saw the first bills from cloud vendors. The monthly operational costs were way beyond what many were expecting because everyone [in the agency] wanted some cloud instances.”
Today, Behl estimates that the agencies he works with run between 70% and 80% of their apps on-premises and the rest in the cloud.
Agility and Automation at the Edge
Federal IT modernization is also extending to the field. In law enforcement agencies, manual processes are being supplanted by automation with faster access to data insights through the use of edge computing. For example, administrators used to load license plate data into a database and run periodic checks to determine out-of-state licensing compliance violations or lapsed registrations.
Now, surveillance cameras record license plate data on roadways, and most processing occurs in the same location, at the edge. The same process applies to data generated by police body cameras and roadway sensors.
Edge processing is more efficient than transporting all data to a data center or the cloud for processing and eventually deleting some or all of it, said Behl. "Data that are generated at the edge is processed there, and only results go to the data center or cloud,” where it’s aggregated with other data for increasingly more comprehensive insights, he explained. The process saves time, cost, and complexity, he added.
Security: Prevention and Fast Incident Response
Federal cybersecurity is also getting a much-needed shot in the arm to battle the rapidly evolving sophistication of threats that endanger data confidentiality and U.S. critical infrastructure. The executive mandate for federal agencies to adopt a Zero Trust Architecture (ZTA), and to actively partner with industry leaders to access innovations such as encryption for data at rest and data in transit aims to improve security posture.
"ZTA works on the premise that any access to digital objects, like resources, data and metadata, should never be implicitly granted but instead should be constantly and continuously evaluated to be appropriate,” said Behl.
Cooperative public-private sector initiatives and certifications all play a role in strengthening cybersecurity throughout the U.S. For example, the U.S. government requires all cloud services used by federal agencies to meet a stringent set of security standards known as the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, or FedRAMP. Nutanix Government Cloud Services, which includes Nutanix Clusters on AWS GovCloud, has a FedRAMP authorization at the Moderate level. In May, Nutanix announced the general availability of Nutanix Clusters on AWS GovCloud.
IT in the U.S. government has often been perceived as being behind the times. But that’s finally changing. Federal funding, more efficient data architectures, private-public sector tech cooperation and the Biden administration’s call for cybersecurity innovation together are paving the way to a new generation of federal IT that's far more agile and resilient than in decades past.