New technologies are being explored across the federal government with high expectations. Mobile workforces, cloud platform solutions, smart sensors and real-time intelligence analysis — these are just a few examples of the digital solutions that can drive disruption and enable greater agency efficiency and effectiveness. But modernization is more than just a watercooler discussion in federal IT departments.

Agencies understand they have aging infrastructures and that IT modernization needs to be a priority if they want to start utilizing new platforms and technologies. The costs of maintaining legacy equipment is too high, and agencies want to get out of traditional IT because the way the federal government buys and deploys technology is changing to meet agencies' needs.

But the speed of innovation in the private sector is still outpacing progress in government because many agencies aren't ready or don't know how to make the leap to fully embrace digital opportunities. Shifting to a modern network infrastructure is the foundation for this transformation.

Innovation starts with the network

Federal chief information officers are focused on improving cybersecurity and providing agencies with the new capabilities needed to support operations and citizen services while working within the budget. The first step to meeting these needs is putting a strong, digital-ready network in place to build on.

Cloud migration is a prime example for federal IT transformation. Most CIOs today acknowledge the tremendous value cloud computing can provide, but to migrate they need a network capable of securing data in transit.

Building a digital-ready network starts with evaluating current environments, architecting a vision for what needs to be done and outlining a multi-phased, yet agile approach for implementation across the organization. It is a strategic process of identifying the gaps in network capabilities and prioritizing needs to be address first. This is why flexible network management is important — so organizations can address immediate security challenges and simultaneously lay the groundwork for future capabilities.

Updating the network is the first step toward stronger cybersecurity because it allows for greater access monitoring and segmentation capabilities. For many IT leaders, the old response to a security challenge or incident was to find the latest security product and deploy it as fast as possible. Some point solutions can help solve specific issues, but in general, a piecemeal approach to security adds complexity. Today, an architectural, network-driven approach is needed to combat evolving threats.

Modernization doesn't mean replacing

A significant misperception about modernization is that federal CIOs will be forced to rip out and replace existing IT infrastructure and systems. When it comes to enabling a digital-ready network, a complete "rip and replace" approach isn't the goal.

Network modernization is about building on what's already in place and strategically investing to help organizations securely expand capabilities. With smart investments, agencies can implement next-generation networks that are flexible, scalable and more secure, thereby creating environments for continued innovation.

Many agencies are already benefiting from digital network capabilities. For instance, the Department of Agriculture is using advanced network capabilities to help farmers collect and monitor crop data with smart sensors. Things like real-time measurement of soil moisture can be used to automate watering. This not only helps keep crops healthy, but it saves farmers time and avoids wasting resources by watering crops too often.

Within the Department of Defense, the network serves as a foundation for new digital capabilities and is a core component of the infrastructure-supporting base and on-the-ground mission operations. Recently, a major installation on the eastern seaboard took on this challenge by renovating its IT infrastructure, beginning with the network backbone. The base also enhanced its security posture because the network can't function if it isn't secure. Built-in, network-driven security enables DoD personnel to safely and securely transmit data and keep it away from adversaries. 

With a secure network, the base can now embrace and deploy digital solutions with confidence. Digitally enabled offices can shut off lights and power down computers when the occupants leave for the day. Cameras can run facial recognition software to check incoming drivers and compare results to a database of bad guys. The network can assist analysts in tracking the health of devices across the entire base and initiates maintenance repairs ahead of time to avoid service disruptions.

These innovative solutions are only possible with advanced network capabilities, and the money saved can be reallocated to support IT modernization projects in other areas.

Traditional CIO to chief innovation officer

Every federal CIO wants their agency to be more innovative. But big ideas are sometimes halted by concerns over budget, security and simply not knowing how to get started. With a digital-ready network, agencies can bring those big ideas back to life and pursue new options like cloud and virtualization. They can establish robust systems to monitor, track and analyze data to deliver valuable insights.

From the cornfield to the battlefield, next-generation networks are critical to driving improvements, performance and delivery of citizen services across the federal government. Agency CIOs should leverage digital-ready networks to transform themselves into chief innovation officers by building environments that will enable new capabilities to support their mission.

Nick Michaelides, lead for U.S. federal sales at Cisco Systems, is a proven leader with 32 years of federal and technology industry experience. He provides strategic vision and operational management to consistently achieve sales goals and develop his workforce. Prior to Cisco, Nick worked for Sun Microsystems for 17 years where he served as a regional executive for the U.S. intelligence community.

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