If Government IT requirements are not driving the tech train, what can be done?

Not too long ago, the government drove the information technology (IT) narrative for computing and telecommunicaitons.  There are many examples:

  • Lease and use of the Hollerith punchcard system for the Cenus of the United States of America. This legitimized the use of technology to improve business activities.
  • The “first” all-electronic computer (albeit without stored programs) the ENIAC. Funded by the government to speed ballistics calculations.  This mainstreamed the idea of digital computation
  • The purchase of the first Univac computer for the US Census Bureau (one of the first commercial computers). Again, legitimized the use of computers for business processes
  • Development of the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) system.  An interconnected set of fault-tolerant computer and Radar systems to protect United States airspace. Paved the way for networked computers to solve real-time transaction-based needs, such as airline reservations
  • Development of one of the first (if not the first) computers to use Integrated Circuits. The Apollo Guidance Computer not only put a complete computer in a one cubit foot box but is was also the first Digital Autopilot.  Virtually every plane and ship uses technology pioneered by the Apollo program
  • Development of the Internet.  DARPA, National Science Foundation, etc.  The network that changed the world
  • Development of Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing (DWDM) and the start of the telecommunications revolution (to support that Internet thing)

I am sure that I missing many significant events. However, today the narrative is changing. At one point, not too long ago the US government had (at least to the first order):

  • The most total computing cycles and largest storage systems in the world
  • The largest and highest capacity corporate networks in the world
Network Usage Growth -  Cisco Visual Networking Index – Forecast, 2009-2012

Now, this is certainly not the case.  Google, Amazon, Microsoft, andothers have huge computing and storage platforms that are growing in“government sized” increments nearly every month or so.  Consumer oriented use of the Internet has dwarfed all other uses of the Internet.

The question now remains, how does the government drive technology for its specfic needs and do it cost effectively. The problem is that companies, who at one time saw the government as it biggest potential client may no longer have that view. 

Products that sell in the millions of units are not easily influenced even by the largest customer.  The government will likely get a cold sholder from Apple for requested changes in the iPad or iOS.  Why? Not because Apple is unpatriotic, but because when you are trying to keep up demand for tens of millions of units, a special order for tens of thousands does not make business sense.

This extends into the networking world as well.  At one time, the government was a large purchaser of domestic and international bandwidth.  With the rise of Google, Netflix, Cable Internet, FiOS, and 3G/4G wireless, and the international financial markets, the bandwidth demand from consumers and businesses has skyrocketed. The government is still big customer - but it is now just another big customer.

Because of this, the government has to stop thinking that it is so special. One of my customers indicated that Verizon did not need security on its public network like the government needed. When I pointed out that the threat surface for Verizon’s network was from about a billion people and that the customer’s closed internal network had only tens of thousands, it still did not resonate. 

You have to face it, Verizon (and all Internet Service Providers) suffers attacks from “bot” infected consumer computers and thousands of worldwide hackers every day. In many cases, I suspect that commercial security and monitoring is more sophisticated and comprehensive than the government’s, in spite requirements that drive layers of processes, documentation, and reviews.

Clearly, the government does have special needs and it contracts to build those systems that are not commercially obtainable.  From combat vehicles to airplanes and satellites, the government spends a lot to get distinct capabilities. But just like the trend when the Census Bureau bought the first Univac computer, leveraging the commercial marketplace for what is or will become a commodity, is essential.

All is not lost, however, forspecial IT systems tailored to a government specific requirement.  The explosion of consumer devices and other structural changes in manufacuring supply chains has led to the creation of hundreds of contract manufacturers.  The secompanies build to their customer’s specification, and because of necessary businessmodel, they are able to rapidly adapt their production lines to changes incustomer’s demands. 

The reason why this is important is that it may enable a more cost effective customization from aninitially very cost effective consumer or business oriented devices (e.g., the development of a “pad” computer with special security features).

There are several challenges with this approach. First, the government and its technical support contractors must understand this environment fully.  This includes both the capabilities and limitations of tailored production requests, as well as the how to develop realisitic specifications to get the right product and the right oversight to make the whole process work.

Second, many of these contract manufacturers are foreign companies. This makes incorporating special security-related features problematic.

So, even though the government may not be able to drive the much larger IT train of today, some of the structural changes in industry may mean that the government may be able to get customized IT hardware solutions within economic sensibilities.  The real question is that for a vast majority of requirements, does the government really need special solutions?

One special area has traditionally been information security. Here the government has and needs to control information that is termed “classified”.   This is information that if released can cause harm to the security of the country or its people.

In this light, a couple of ideas to consider:

  • Strong mobile device data security, on mobile device types that have become common place.  This include how to handle encryption engines, keys, and potential tampering to unlock classified data contained on advice as well as the use of the “Cloud” for user application services.  Of course, the combination must  improve government operations possibly even allow these devices to enter and leave secure government spaces
  • Enabling wireless communications within secure government spaces for WiFi as well as building specific 3G/4G wireless networks.  Again, the devices that leverage wireless must provide services that are recognizableto the user.  Can this capability, combined with the right mobile device, and Cloud applications services might even allow a single device to be used in and out of government spaces

The approaches will likely be derivatives of commercial systems and services that are needed to protect the confidentiality of business information or personal information (such as health records).  Imagination, determination, and some changes in government culture will be needed to deliver this types of capabilities for sensitive government needs.

I'll follow-up with some thoughts on technology investments that the government has, is, and could make in a subsequent post.

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