Setting up a network near a disaster area just days — or even hours — after a hurricane, flood or tornado appeals to leaders at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Similarly, the U.S. Forest Service sees the value in scaling up network capabilities when responders work to extinguish wildfires.
These possibilities are leading agencies to lay the groundwork for software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV). Instead of linking network functions and policies to hardware, SDN enables agencies to control those tasks through software. As a result, CIOs say these technologies can streamline management costs for ever-more complex networks and can significantly shrink the time it takes to deliver network resources. Both solutions enable IT teams to automate the delivery of advanced network services and resources, reducing the demands on administrators and the costs of network configuration and maintenance.
“The opportunity to provide quick, on-demand microservices around the network is going to be huge for us moving forward,” says Adrian Gardner, the CIO at FEMA.
They can also enable agencies “to create a fully programmable network service with embedded security,” says Jonathan Alboum, the CIO at the Agriculture Department.
But Alboum points to two challenges the government often faces in adopting new technology that commercial enterprises avoid: “Namely, how will SDN and NFV comply with government security, and how will we navigate the complete process surrounding acquisition rules.”
A New Era of Federal Networking
Agencies are grappling with both issues as the SDN market explodes. IDC last year predicted that the global market will be worth more than $12.5 billion in 2020, a compounded annual growth rate of 53.9 percent from 2014.
Alboum says the contract is a step in the right direction for agencies to break into the space. Government will transition to the $50 billion, 15-year infrastructure vehicle in 2020.
Gardner says he is already preparing budgets for fiscal 2019 to 2023 that include SDN as a major pillar of his support network so he has “freedom of choice” to get “services and capabilities to survivors and first responders.” Consider Hurricane Sandy, the 2012 storm that wrought havoc on the Northeast, as an example.
“That was about a year to a year-and-a-half of response activity,” Gardner says. “Over that period of time I had varying requirements in terms of network speed, capability, services. If I could ebb and flow with that very agilely, that’s where I want to be in the future, as opposed to running wire and having a hardware asset in place.”
The broader government migration to cloud services will only further push the adoption of SDN, said Brad Casemore, IDC’s research director for data center networks.
“If you’re moving into more of a private cloud ... as many government agencies are, you are going to want to get the sort of agility that the leading public cloud players have been able to derive from SDN,” he says. “You have to change not only the way you architect your network, but the way you operate it.”
Casemore adds that agency CIOs will also have to hire staff proficient in the new technologies.
“It’s not like somebody who is trained as a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert can readily shift to SDN,” he says. “You need someone who is more comfortable with automation, often someone who is more comfortable with Linux and DevOps practices ... (and has) a broader understanding for what other operational areas of IT require and also what businesses and developers are trying to achieve.
“It’s not just technical skills, but it’s also a mindset that kind of breaks the mold.”