Something very big will break unless we modernise our IT infrastructure
Everyone in IT knows that infrastructure doesn’t get the attention it deserves, as digital transformation takes centre stage. Fancy new citizen-facing portals or applications are what people like to talk about, not the boring servers in the basement. It is an issue that is not unique to government.
Not surprisingly, Gartner expects to see Australian CIOs direct the largest amount of new and additional IT funding in 2024 towards application modernisation, cloud platforms, data and analytics.
However, as global economies struggle to combat inflation and businesses face headwinds, discretionary spending is being cut, and the focus must shift to securing what is most critical.
It is high time some of our mission-critical systems in government, which haven’t received significant investment for over a decade, get the funding and attention they warrant. Some of the deeply embedded systems, that are the backbone of our nation, are more than 40 years old and are tended to by an aging workforce on the verge of retirement.
What happens if those systems fall over?
Well, imagine if the billions of dollars that change hands each day between the federal government and its citizens suddenly stops changing hands, and you have an idea of the risks Australia faces if the problem is not addressed.
While there have been multiple attempts to address this risk through modernisation of these mission-critical systems, it has often ended up in the too hard basket.
These past efforts took a very binary approach to replacing the older mainframe tech with newer cloud technologies. But over the past decade, it has become clear that mainframes may still be the best option for certain high-volume and mission-critical services.
Current thinking is that most mature IT organisations will have a hybrid IT ecosystem, and modernisation is not about simply re-platforming older mainframe systems to the cloud. In fact, it is just one of three modernisation paths available to organisations. They can choose to modernise on, integrate with or migrate off mainframes.
Organisations also need to look at democratising the data held in legacy IT systems, to make it more freely accessible to the newer cloud and mobile applications.
Critical skills shortage
We are also at a crossroads where many tech skills such as mainframe programming are reliant on a rapidly diminishing workforce. New-generation technology professionals who enter the workforce are not readily trained to work with some of the older technology. If this critical skills shortage is not addressed and we do not put in the necessary investment to appropriately cross-skill the new workforce, the Australian public sector may face risks with national significance.
According to recent research by Kyndryl, declining mainframe skills are cited as a major challenge for more than half of organisations, with 74% of respondents saying they rely on external firms to support them on the transformation due to skills challenges.
The good news is that mainframes are built to embrace open source. With the right tooling, developers across a hybrid IT ecosystem can be free to use the tools that they are most familiar with to maintain productivity, while adhering to a consistent set of coding practices. This flexibility which the tooling provides can open the talent pool to encompass candidates from various coding backgrounds to be cross-skilled in more than one programming language.
Who is keeping watch?
As a nation we have woken up to the fact that cybersecurity is everyone’s business. It was fantastic to hear the PM recently announce a $5 billion deal with Microsoft to invest in Australia’s cybersecurity.
However, investment is also needed in the final line of defence in the battle to secure our mission-critical systems: the IT service management function. This function is like that of a watchkeeper on the high seas: boring but critical.
The good news here is that automation, done right, can pinpoint, anticipate, and prevent or resolve issues within an IT infrastructure with minimal human intervention, freeing up critical resource groups to cross-skill and up-skill.
There is a great opportunity for government to use AIOps — utilising AI to identify and resolve common IT operations — to observe patterns before they are apparent to human observers, and to automate repetitive maintenance tasks. AIOps also can provide transparent reporting to all levels of management, from the C-suite to the front line, which is vital to manage an aging IT infrastructure.
Given the significant risks we face from historical underinvestment in vital government IT infrastructure, government needs to adopt a ‘fix it before it breaks approach’ and get the foundations right before attempting to build on top of a fragile foundation.
It is one part of a much-needed reprioritisation of budget allocation towards the infrastructure layer that will set Australian society up for the next 30 years.
It is time to give infrastructure the attention and investment it needs. The risks of putting it in the too hard basket for any longer are simply too big and too damaging to contemplate.
To quote JFK from his 1962 State of the Union address: “The best time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.”
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