Dec 27 2022

How Federal Agencies Can Effectively Plan Upgrades for Aging IT

Federal IT leaders face many challenges in technology lifecycle management and must be proactive in how they evolve their agencies’ IT architecture.

As federal agencies modernized their technology solutions over the past several years, they have upgraded their networks, moved to hybrid cloud architectures and adopted shared services.

However, there are always more upgrades to do. One federal IT official recently told FedTech it is “almost like a game of whack-a-mole.” These upgrades are especially challenging for mission-critical systems.

Technology lifecycle management for federal systems is complex, requiring IT leaders to account for a constellation of variables, including supply chains, funding streams from Congress, varying priorities across agencies, and relationships with contractors and integrators. To stay on top of upgrades and keep pace with technology evolutions, IT leaders need to remain proactive and maintain an ongoing dialogue with trusted partners that supply and support their technology.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but there is a common set of best practices IT leaders should follow.

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Start Planning Federal IT Upgrades Early

Because federal procurement cycles tend to happen on longer time horizons than in the private sector, it’s important for IT leaders to plan for upgrades well in advance of when they will be needed. For this reason, it’s important for leaders to have a regular dialogue with critical technology partners to understand their product and solution roadmaps — sometimes years in advance — to take full advantage of where technology change will lead.

It's important to assess how an agency’s architecture is performing relative to mission needs. Mission-critical systems need to be at the head of the line for technology refreshes, budget, and what agency leaders request from the Office of Management and Budget and, ultimately, from Congress. Without adequate funding, often over many years, IT upgrades can stall before they even get off the ground, further impacting agencies with archaic architectures that are prone to failure and limited in capacity. 

Planning for major technology architecture upgrades should be done as far in advance as possible. These long time horizons mean that agency CIOs and leaders need to maintain constant dialogue with vendors and technology partners. They need to address how technology and mission needs are changing and how those changes will affect the agency’s ability to execute its mission.

This also means that agencies should aim to build as much flexibility into their contracts as possible to take advantage of advances in technology that might come after contracts begin, while still meeting mission and security requirements 

Establish a Structure to Modernize Agency Technology

Mature organizations typically have a strategy and architectural group that can develop, continually update and model these plans. These teams should employ strong system engineering and architecture planning principles and approaches to translate those high-level strategies into specific requirements that are more near-term and aligned to contracting vehicles. Such approaches also need support via agile tools such as model-based systems engineering and architecting tools. This enables agencies to more effectively transition from one technology to another, though it might require multiple levels of contracting.

This approach links strategic agency objectives to IT to determine where the agency will need to be within a five-year time horizon in terms of technology adoption to meet those objectives. From there, an agency should project the associated cost of those changes. Those costs then need to be shared between the financial and procurement units with the agency to properly align contracting vehicles with the agency IT objectives.  

Agency leadership then needs to determine how the planned technology upgrades fit into their budget projections. This may require adjustments to either the budget or the proposed upgrades. It may even require requesting that Congress appropriate more money for critical mission objectives.

EXPLORE: How CDW’s IT services can assist agencies on the road to digital transformation.

In some cases, an agency may find itself unable to operate a legacy technology. Picture a mainframe that is past the point of upgrade and unable to be secured. The moment when an agency bites the bullet and decides to abandon a piece of mission-critical legacy technology can wind up being a driver of budget decisions, giving IT leaders the leverage they need to make the case to agency leadership that the agency mission cannot be achieved without an upgrade.

That is obviously not always going to be the case, especially in large, federated agencies with different priorities and technology lifecycles. In those instances, this process is necessarily more complex and will require a significant amount of collaboration among key stakeholders about their priorities, which is no small feat.

Stepping back, much of the technology lifecycle management process will be driven by advances in the commercial market. Agencies and their trusted partners need to communicate about the agencies’ future needs and how to use technology to address them. 

Again, each agency will need to undertake this process, and leaders will need to make decisions that meet their specific mission needs and budgetary constraints. Making IT upgrades effectively across the federal government is not easy, but if leaders are proactive in their planning and maintain an ongoing dialogue with industry, they can make it much more manageable.

This article is part of FedTech’s CapITal blog series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #FedIT hashtag.

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