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Why resist the move to the cloud?

The cloud computing that delivers many of today's services -- from streaming music to online shopping to social media -- was developed by innovative companies that took risks and pushed initiatives that have redefined how we interact with our friends, families, business associates and others.

Unfortunately, the public sector has not embraced such innovation. While pockets of success have emerged, such as the CIA’s Commercial Cloud Services for the intelligence community, too many agencies have failed to take advantage of these more secure, cloud-based technologies.

But the tide is turning. In a report to Congress explaining its need for cloud computing, the Pentagon described its current legacy information technology environment as “not optimized for the 21st century” – and the same can be said of much of civilian agency IT as well.

This lag by government agencies to modernize can be attributed to a host of factors, including rigid and often prohibitive technology acquisition rules, a “how-we’ve-always-done-it” culture within the federal bureaucracy and the desperate pressure applied by the “Old Guard” providers of legacy IT to convince government customers to hold on to outdated systems.

In addition, a lack of understanding of the benefits of cloud computing also plays a part in emboldening some decision-makers to resist cloud migration and other innovative changes.

Infrastructure modernization researchers determined in 2016 that federal spending on IT per employee is almost $40,000, nearly four times the average per employee spend rate in other industries.

Other experts have quantified the “old technology” deficit – that is, the share of technology that will need to be replaced because it is approaching its end of life. They have found that an estimated $60 billion is spent each year by the federal government simply to maintain legacy IT systems – and this problem is compounded by a younger federal workforce that increasingly is not trained to maintain half-century-old systems using COBOL or other dated programming languages.

While the reluctance of our government to modernize imposes huge costs that are ultimately borne by taxpayers, the security threat posed by this late-to-the-game approach to cloud technology is real.

We should not be sending our warfighters into harm’s way without the absolute best possible threat information sharing and communications systems, nor should we leave our non-military assets vulnerable to attack.

To this end, we must take strong action to modernize and better protect our military systems and personnel, and our civilian systems and data. 

To illustrate the point, look no further than the 2015 Chinese espionage operation that compromised the background investigation files of 22 million federal employees and contractors. Government officials later admitted that these OPM files were not encrypted because the systems were simply too old. This is an unacceptable security risk. 

Modernization mandated

President Donald Trump and Congress agree that government IT systems must be modernized. The president issued an executive order in May 2017 that said, "The executive branch has for too long accepted antiquated and difficult-to-defend IT" and that "effective immediately, it is the policy of the executive branch to build and maintain a modern, secure, and more resilient executive branch IT architecture."

To achieve this, the president directed that each agency head use the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Cybersecurity Framework  to better manage cybersecurity risk and to "show preference in their procurement for shared IT services, to the extent permitted by law, including email, cloud, and cybersecurity services." The president’s actions represent an aggressive move to revolutionize the federal government and provide better and more efficient services to the American taxpayer. 

Congress has also signaled its strong support for this effort through passage last November of the Modernizing Government Technology Act. This new law authorized federal agencies to reprogram unused IT budget allocations to fund future modernization efforts and established a separate, government-wide fund to further support modernization. 

The American consumer is already enjoying the benefits of commercial cloud computing and shared services. If the president and Congress agree, then moving the government in the same direction is a no brainer. Taxpayers should demand that their government stop wasting money on ineffective, inefficient, and unsecure systems.

A move toward shared IT infrastructure is not only the obvious path forward, it’s essential, and should be pursued expeditiously before billions more tax dollars are wasted and additional security breaches occur. Government officials should no longer heed the entrenched forces of resistance to innovation and instead deliver the best possible and most secure services to the American taxpayer.

About the Author

John B. Wood is CEO and chairman of the board of Telos Corporation.

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