Friday, October 11, 2013

Business, Government and Technology : Observations of large IS stagey in execution

The US government continues to be in partial “shut down” this week. Most analysts and political pundits are unclear on what the negotiation between Republicans and Democrats is going to be about, or when it will happen. However, the focus on government shutdown has distracted media attention from two key technology enablers in the US government landscape that will have far reaching consequences, impacting lives of citizen here much after the current debate fades from memory.

The rollout of obamacare and meltdown of NSA’s super data center, both of which made the front pages of Wall Street Journal this week, only to give way to news of US government shutdown.

Affordable healthcare (aka Obamacare). While the focus of politicians and media is on the socialist angle, role of government in healthcare of citizen, it is really about use of modern Information Technology and tools of integration. The complex health exchange engines are designed to be powered by equally complex software and IT systems. There are always challenges when new systems are rolled out to the extent proposed. Timothy Lee blogs in Washington Post “Here’s why getting theObamacare exchanges to work was so difficult
“This week, the new health-care exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act, dubbed Obamacare, have come in for a lot of criticism. The sites cost millions — in some cases hundreds of millions — of dollars to create. And some of them weren't ready for the traffic they received on Oct. 1, the day Obamacare went into effect.”

The blog quotes a healthcare IT expert reflecting on the challenge: "It wasn't because of the complexity of building high-volume websites—that's their bread and butter—but because of the complexity of the contracting and project arrangements with all the prime contractor and subcontractor relationships. …… Everybody who's on the inside has really expected it to be pretty rocky at the start. It's a very large undertaking, and there are so many players involved. Such fixed deadlines. Everyone has expected it to be quite a challenge.”
Another interesting observation from the blog post: cost of corporate websites is a question I hear often. Why does a corporate website cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, when I could go to goddy and get a website hosted for a mere hundred plus dollars?  [California's exchange, for example, reportedly cost $313 million to build.]

“There are lots of different reasons. Part of it is these are large IT projects being conducted by government agencies, by large contractors with large teams. There are a lot of layers of project management, of requirements, design, coding. It looks very different than your small start-up where you've got 10 people in the room working closely together and rapidly developing things.
Even though in this type of setting the development teams are using what you might call agile methods, there's still a huge layer of requirements and review and sign-off. There's lots of policy decisions that have to be made that shape ever step of the way. There's much more overhead involved in this sort of thing than if you're trying to have a small set of people developing the Web site.”

US Government’s NSA and massive data crunching needs: This was another issue that made headlines this week “Meltdowns HobbleNSA Data Center” (WSJ) : The Utah facility, one of the Pentagon's biggest U.S. construction projects, has become a symbol of the spy agency's surveillance prowess, which gained broad attention in the wake of leaks from NSA contractor Edward Snowden. It spans more than one-million square feet, with construction costs pegged at $1.4 billion—not counting the Cray supercomputers that will reside there.

NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines acknowledged problems but said "the failures that occurred during testing have been mitigated. A project of this magnitude requires stringent management, oversight, and testing before the government accepts any building."

The reason for reflecting on these problems is obvious: Though still early in the rollout, there are lessons for technology strategists and Enterprise Architects in both scenarios.