IT infrastructure challenges for government

By Jonathan Nally
Monday, 02 May, 2016

IT infrastructure challenges for government

Our panel of experts give their views on where and when governments should outsource infrastructure, and when it should remain in-house.

Government departments and agencies are ditching bespoke IT systems in favour of commercial offerings as commodity cloud and other infrastructure offerings become more trusted. Indeed, they are increasingly being pushed to make the most of publicly available services whose cloud architecture makes them both highly effective and easily accessible. This is true in areas such as security, disaster recovery, communications and cloud storage, among others.

So in this age of outsourcing, we sourced four experts to give us their thoughts on how governments can best take advantage of the services and products available to them. Canberra-based Jerry Badalassi is Senior Systems Engineer at Avaya ANZ, where he is responsible for helping government and enterprise clients transform their businesses. Wayne Neich is Managing Director, Australia and New Zealand, for Nutanix, a company that specialises in hyper-convergence. Nathan Steiner is Head of Systems Engineering, ANZ, at Veeam, a supplier to government of back-up, disaster recovery and virtualisation services. And Matthew Kates is Country Manager, Australia and New Zealand at Zerto, a firm that also specialises in outsourced data replication and disaster recovery.

GTR: Which parts of IT infrastructure are best suited to IaaS, and which should remain in-house?

NEICH: IaaS and cloud-based consumption models have already changed the perception of technology in government. The C-level executives who were accustomed to budgeting for huge capex investments on five- to 10-year cycles now understand the financial and performance benefits of pay-as-you-grow, scalable infrastructure. They realise that it not only eliminates a significant upfront bill, but enables them to respond more quickly to their department’s business requirements as they can very quickly and easily allocate more resources where and when they need them.

Yet, while outsourcing infrastructure to government-approved cloud data centres is becoming an increasingly attractive option, an on-premises enterprise cloud platform gives governments the ability to take complete control over applications and data.

BADALASSI: Over the last five years especially, government departments have come to realise that once a premises-based implementation goes in, nothing changes for the following five to six years; the legacy infrastructure is too rigid, and trying to upgrade and expand becomes costly. This has spurred the uptake of IaaS. From an applications perspective — everything from core systems to UC and CC applications — agencies now want to run apps in a private cloud environment located in either their own or a hosted data centre. From a technical standpoint, it keeps their capabilities and performance current, and provides flexibility and the ability to manage surges in demand.

For the networking environment to move into an IaaS model, the technology within the network needs to change to support multiple tenants over a simplified architecture, rather than a complex layering of multiple networking protocols.

STEINER: IaaS has been around now for quite some time and certainly won’t change everything for government agencies. While government can derive significant benefits from IaaS across the board, it is the allocation of ‘parts’ that will determine the best return on investment. Storage, network, compute and workload — the latter with low-risk security classifications that cannot be predicted, is seasonal and project driven with short and well-defined life cycles — are all best suited to commercial IaaS.

IT infrastructure that in general terms should remain in-house would be core IP carrying physical security requirements, and the storage, network and compute requirements that are long term, stable and predictable.

KATES: The public sector is a mix of fiercely independent agencies that proudly manage services in-house and others which have embraced outsourcing. The debate for moving to IaaS is not so much a technical question as a historical preference.

As the public sector increasingly moves toward a cloud first strategy, however, we will see IaaS change the traditional approach of the large-scale, periodic capital refresh. The IaaS model has no practical restrictions and particularly suits virtual workloads which can be more easily moved to IaaS providers.

There are no longer any technical reasons for government agencies to be responsible for IT infrastructure services. Most agencies already contract out the most technical hardware and software maintenance, and as infrastructure management becomes more commoditised, a move to outsourcing IT infrastructure management services can see a reduction of time, cost and complexity. It can remove the need, particularly for smaller agencies, to hire and retain the necessary staff and deploy the appropriate management tools and processes.

GTR: What’s the business case for infrastructure replacement?

NEICH: There’s nothing easy about trying to manage and maintain legacy systems that weren’t designed — and therefore struggle — to cope with modern systems and applications. Governments are expected to be at the forefront of service provisioning to employees and citizens, and if the infrastructure backbone can’t deliver the performance or availability for a seamless experience, the repercussions become dire. In mid-2015, for example, various MyGov services experienced extensive outages that plagued users trying to access Australian Taxation Office and welfare services, among others.

The biggest problem with these outdated technologies is that they are inherently complicated, often comprising multiple disparate and inconsistent components. They require a lot of maintenance by certified experts, and downtime can be extensive. When we speak with government departments about their existing and expected business challenges, they tell us they need a way to strip back and simplify; for instance, they want to aggregate their data centre into a small footprint that allows them to enable new services quickly without spending hours making sure the technology is running properly.

BADALASSI: We see this happen with corporate networks, where performance issues are fixed by adding new bits to the stack. What’s left is a series of disparate technologies that don’t work well together, and therefore create more risk than anything.

KATES: Owning equipment or software that is no longer supported by the vendor creates unacceptable risks for government agencies and requires many refreshes to manually support them in-house. All government CIOs know that the replacement of technology infrastructure every three to five years is inevitable. When the time comes to replace IT infrastructure, it is prudent to look closely at all options including IaaS.

Once an agency’s infrastructure is sitting on a cloud provider, it is up to that cloud service provider (CSP) to refresh and update all equipment and software, relieving considerable time pressure from the in-house team. I would strongly recommend working with any CSP to question and document into service agreements a transparent clause for currency of services, regular refreshes and updates.

GTR: To what degree should open standards and open source be embraced?

STEINER: Focusing open standards on small, iterative services alongside a more stable and standardised approach to agency infrastructure should be the goal. Market research firm Gartner refers to this as Bimodal IT, where open standards and open source should be applied in combination with the traditional forms of IT infrastructure management.

NEICH: More important than embracing open standards is ensuring that the infrastructures they are built on deliver the agility, pay-as-you-grow consumption and operational simplicity of the public cloud without sacrificing the predictability, security and control of on-premises infrastructure. By ensuring that these projects are built with and upon enterprise cloud platforms, government IT teams can deliver value to their organisations over the long term.

BADALASSI: Open standards and open source don’t always go hand in hand. You can do open standards without open source. The value in open source really depends on the agency’s objective. While you might not have the same backing when it’s all done in-house, the lack of up-front capital and the ability to assert greater control over a project make open source an attractive option for small to medium-sized departments that want enhanced customisation and security over data.

GTR: How can governments upskill in a difficult IT labour market?

STEINER: We are seeing a seismic shift in the future skills requirements when taking a Bimodal IT approach to infrastructure environments. On the one hand you have the traditional IT infrastructure skills requirements that focus on storage, network and compute around design, delivery and operations. On the other hand, we see a shift to a more abstracted, software-defined and application platform-centric environment where the skillset requirement will shift more to DevOps.

KATES: One of the benefits realised by agencies when considering IaaS options is that the need to ensure staff are constantly armed with the most current technical knowledge and skillset becomes the challenge and responsibility of the service providers, rather than the in-house IT team.

While this can be an excellent supplement to skills shortages, it is still important for agencies to invest in CIOs, architects and sourcing strategy. It is these more difficult roles that will really aid the business. Agencies often discover that these specialised roles can be expensive and employing skilled people at this level under existing pay scales becomes difficult. Many agencies are overcoming this challenge by contracting high-level services into the business, hiring trusted advisors on contract… even on a long-term basis.

GTR: Which factors make IT outsourcing a better choice?

NEICH: When comparing only the complex and expensive realities of existing traditional infrastructures versus the easy, flexible, public cloud, outsourcing infrastructure will always seem more desirable. But the public cloud isn’t always a fit for all data, applications or government agencies.

Instead, government agencies should look to implement a true enterprise cloud platform, providing them with all the benefits of the public cloud while removing many of the risk factors associated with it, including security concerns. In using an enterprise cloud, agencies can still take advantage of the public cloud with seamless integration for things such as backups. But they can maintain control of their critical applications via an on-premises infrastructure. This not only saves agencies money, but it ensures they can meet stringent security and compliance regulations.

BADALASSI: It depends on the agency. For the most part, it’s driven by cost. Outsourcing generally means taking out cost internally. Some agencies — mostly the larger bodies — need capabilities in-house. They need to make changes in real time. Outsourcing has the potential to slow down this process, which has a direct impact on productivity both in and outside the IT department. On the other hand, smaller agencies which don’t need large IT teams nor have large budgets or many staff members are seeing the benefit of using external services providers.

Image courtesy Bob Mical under CC

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