Jan 16 2024

Hidden Technical Debt Creates Challenges for Agencies Evolving Their IT Infrastructure

Agencies need to know what old technology exists before spending time and money on new.

Standing up new IT infrastructure on the foundation of an old one can create implementation and innovation challenges. But it also gives government agencies the unique opportunity to critically evaluate legacy tech and build on the existing technical frameworks that allow them to effectively carry out their missions.

For example, the U.S. Space Force plans to become the first completely digital military service by fully applying digital technologies and capabilities to space operations.

Implementing and realizing this goal, however, requires a full assessment of the outstanding technical debt inherited from its predecessor, the U.S. Air Force Space Command, before advancing to newer and more modern systems.

Overcoming that technical debt requires several critical steps, mainly establishing a technical baseline of legacy and current technology and developing interdependency service mappings of all systems. Here are some methods and recommendations to achieve these ends.

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What Is Technical Debt?

Technical debt refers to the accumulated cost and consequences of design and development decisions and changes made during sustainment. It resembles financial debt, where long-term costs and obligations can offset the short-term benefits of taking on debt.

Causes of technical debt include inefficient code, poor configuration control, neglecting documentation, postponing bug fixes or failing to address security vulnerabilities. It can also build up through failing to document short-term solutions often relied on to get the mission back up and running quickly.

Over time, technical debt can slow development, increase the risk of errors and system failures, and make implementing future changes or enhancements more difficult and costly.

Agencies must manage and address technical debt to ensure their software systems’ long-term health and sustainability. Technical debt reduces agencies’ ability to implement newer solutions. To tackle debt, agencies must establish a technical baseline to understand what has been inherited, in terms of both programming and infrastructure.

Documentation can vary from poor to nonexistent; still, agencies must move aggressively toward new requirements on legacy systems, which must first be fully understood to avoid adding new risks or jeopardizing the mission.

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How to Establish a Technical Baseline

Establishing a technical baseline is the first step to addressing the technical debt. The term refers to a documented and agreed-upon set of specifications, plans and requirements that serve as a foundation for developing, implementing and evaluating a system or technology.

The Department of Defense, for instance, provides the DoD Architecture Framework 2.02, which the military branches can repurpose for this effort. The framework outlines how a system or technology should be designed, built, documented and operated.

Without this kind of framework — or in instances where documentation failed to happen as technology was developed — an agency is put in a difficult position. Instead of moving forward on modernization, an IT staff will have to spend time and energy understanding how legacy systems were designed and built. They’ll also need to determine how the systems evolved, including identifying security patches and system changes.

For more information, agencies can also examine the original documents related to requests for proposals and establish grading criteria to measure whether or not technology met mission demands over time. Using the same criteria, they can then decide to either port legacy technology to an updated supported technology stack or build something new.

Once a technical baseline is complete, the final step is to cultivate detailed interdependency service mappings of all systems to develop redundancy within the enterprise.

DISCOVER: Agencies can upgrade systems on a budget.

Why Are Interdependency Service Mappings Necessary?

In the Information Technology Infrastructure Library framework, interdependency service mappings identify and document the relationships and dependencies between IT services.

Interdependency service mappings help illustrate how various IT services rely on each other and how changes or disruptions in one service can impact others. They involve analyzing the dependencies between services, including technical and nontechnical ones.

These mappings are designed to:

  1. Identify critical dependencies. By mapping interdependencies, an agency can identify single points of failure within its environment. This will enable IT staff to prioritize and manage these dependencies effectively to minimize the impact of any disruptions or changes.
  2. Assess impact. Understanding interdependencies lets an agency assess the potential impact of changes or incidents on other services. For example, if one circuit goes down, what are the ripple effects? This helps in planning and implementing changes in a controlled manner, reducing the risk of unintended consequences while lowering technical debt.

Please note, however, that if everything becomes a priority, then nothing is a priority.

    1. Improve service resilience. By identifying and addressing interdependencies, an agency can also enhance the resilience of its IT services by developing redundancy within its environment.
    2. Support incident and problem management. Interdependency service mappings can provide valuable insights during incident and problem management processes. Mainly, they help identify the root causes of incidents and problems by tracing the impact across interconnected services.

    Service mapping diagrams, dependency matrices and service catalogs can be used to create interdependency service mappings. These tools help visualize and document service relationships, enabling better understanding and managing interdependencies.

    As government agencies modernize their technology infrastructures, they must recognize that operations increasingly rely on digital technologies and capabilities. To succeed in this effort, agencies must slow down and understand what technology they already have. This will be slow and tedious work, but it is critical to develop future capabilities and fulfill agencies’ missions.

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