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Data Center Downtime Among Federal Agencies Spurs Calls For More IT Investment

A study conducted by MeriTalk and Symantec found the government is unhappy with its IT support, and IT professionals say they're struggling to work on such outdated systems

A new study that shows federal agencies experienced 30 minutes or more of downtime with their data centers in a recent one-month period has solution providers urging the government to invest more in its IT infrastructure.

Steve O’Keeffe, founder of MeriTalk, a public-private partnership focused on improving the outcomes of government technology, said a study underwritten by Symantec underscores the need for an update of government equipment. The study found 70 percent of agencies experienced downtime for more than 30 minutes in the last month, and 90 percent of field workers said the downtime affected their ability to do their jobs. Reportedly, 42 percent of the downtime was due to a network or server outage, while 29 percent was due to internet connectivity loss.

O’Keeffe said those numbers indicate public government service websites -- including, for example, healthcare.gov or those available for veterans support services -- may have gone down during those periods.

’It’s becoming more and more of a challenge,’ he told CRN. ’There’s more weight on these data centers. With downtime, think about healthcare.gov, … think about mission critical DoD on the frontlines. … It affects our ability to look at the services the government provides to America. Even look at the TSA in terms of vetting people coming into the country -- when you fly in and there are those long lines, if you have a 30-minute downtime, that line will back up and back up.’

[Related: Software Problems Cripple Federal Healthcare System Rollout]

Additionally according to the study findings, 42 percent of government field workers said downtime with their on-premise data centers left them unable to support their agencies' missions. At the same time, less than one-fifth of federal IT professionals said they felt fully-confident in their agencies abilities to meet uptime and failover requirements.

The study estimated having agile data centers could save field workers 800 hours of work each year for a $32.5 billion savings in annual productivity.

O’Keeffe said the government and IT professionals are both aware of these problems but unable to make the necessary investments to fix them.

’I think the motto for the government IT professional should be, ’The beatings will continue until morale improves,’ … because patently,’ he said, ’from the study, they’re telling us what the problems are. … They understands these issues.’

O’Keeffe noted downtime also opens government agencies up to the threat of major security breaches. One in three field workers said they use their unsecured personal devices and one in four use workarounds, like Google Apps, when unable to access agency applications on the job, according to the study.

’They spend billions of dollars on IT certification (through the Federal Information Security Management Act) but if that system is not available, or the file size is too big, … it just goes over to Gmail or Hotmail or a Yahoo account,’ O’Keeffe said. ’That goes on all the time.’

MeriTalk said the study with Symantec was conducted this summer and surveyed 152 federal field workers and 150 federal IT professionals with a margin of error of about 8 percent for each group.

NEXT: VARs Weigh In On How This Affects Government IT Workers


Jim Turner, president of D.C.-based Hilltop Consultants, said IT pros in the Washington-D.C. area and beyond run into these issues constantly. He previously did subcontractor work for the Pentagon, as well as contractual work for the U.S. Senate.

’What happens is not necessarily the contractors’ fault. They’re responding to RFPs (requests for proposals) from the government and often they’re forced to work with technology the government agency already owns,’ Turner said. ’The agency may not be able to make the commitment to purchase or release whatever the transactions may be. They’re not willing to make the leap to get that back up and business continuity technology.’

Turner said a clear example of technology holding back federal agencies lies in the recent IRS controversy of 2013 in which officials were reportedly targeting and intensively scrutinizing conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status. Lois Lerner, now a former IRS official, said she lost emails from her hard drive and could not provide them when her records were subpoenaed.

CBS News recently reported officials are looking into finding the lost files on backup tapes, but Turner said if the federal government had adopted available solutions for backup and disaster recovery before this, the lost files issue could have been avoided.

’We recommend the Datto solution,’ Turner said. ’It provides us with the ability to recover clients’ service within a matter of minutes, not days or hours.’

Aaron Frketich, vice president of Virginia Beach, Va.-based 360IT Partners, said he works exclusively in the private sector but knows of several VARs grappling with upholding service level agreements (SLAs) without the proper equipment in D.C. He said he can empathize with those working with the government, struggling to uphold troubled systems with limited resources.

’[Government systems] may be two or three revisions behind on their exchange or emails system,’ Frketich said. ’That can have a direct impact on downtime.’

MeriTalk and Symantec’s study notes 36 percent of field workers give IT departments a grade of ’C’ or lower for downtime management. Sixty-nine percent of IT professionals say 30 minutes or more a month of downtime is unacceptable, but only 23 percent of them give data centers from their agency an ’A’ for effectively delivering the ’right information and resources to the right users’ on a daily basis.

NEXT: What Can Be Done To Improve Government Operations


O’Keeffe said IT spending by the White House is on the decline, which puts IT professionals ’between a rock and a hard place.’

The federal government spent $80 billion in 2011 on IT services, according to the White House website, and is now taking on an approximate $2 billion cut to bring spending to about $79 billion for fiscal year 2015, according to InformationWeek. O’Keeffe noted spending is expected to go down to $78.5 billion by 2019, which is less money than was allocated to IT in 2009.

A greater investment from the government could fix these issues, O’Keeffe said, but since money is not readily available at this time, there has to be a consideration for consolidating the large amounts of available government equipment. He pointed out an initiative to consolidate the number of data centers failed in 2009 when the government grew its number of centers from about 700 to now more than 9,000. Moving the government's infrastructure into the cloud would streamline operations and save costs in the end, he said.

Government solution providers say the path through this includes adding bandwidth and storage to improve data center agility as well as concentrating on improving security and educating senior leadership on the importance of the data center. Fifty-four percent of the IT professionals in the study said they would make adding bandwidth for government agencies a number one priority.

O’Keeffe said he testifies on Capitol Hill regularly and continues to work to steer legislators in the right direction on IT matters.

’There’s a lot of great people in government. And I’m afraid there’s a lot of great people leaving government because they’re so frustrated,’ he said. ’Look at healthcare.gov and some other issues. It’s awful. They don’t have the resources they need to get it done, and then they’re publicly flogged in the Washington Post for it. So it’s a great opportunity right now to transform government IT. Benjamin Franklin once said, ’The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’ So, change something.’

PUBLISHED AUG. 22, 2014

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