Innovation and changeDigital TransformationWhy innovation in government must be tempered with reality

Why innovation in government must be tempered with reality

Sascha Giese at SolarWinds discusses how two technologies – SDN and “white box” networking solutions – can help modern networking tech to fit into government regulations.

The latest and most innovative networking solutions are always in high demand, thanks to the rapidly increasing benefits of automation that they provide organisations. Implementing software-defined networking (SDN) solutions can not only improve the efficiency of the IT systems overall, they can also offer greater response mechanisms when a data breach occurs, making them invaluable in today’s GDPR-conscious world.

But government administrators should balance their desire for modern SDN solutions with the realities of public sector IT environments. While there are calls for innovation, agility, flexibility, simplicity, and better security, implementation of these new technologies must take place within constraints posed by methodical procurement practices, meticulous security documentation, and sometimes-archaic network policies, to name a few.

This is often easier said than done. Migrating away from proven legacy technologies towards modern network solutions can be one of the most time-consuming and expensive endeavors facing government IT administrators. Prolonged procurement processes and the need for training, different skill sets, and adjusted mindsets must all be considered.

Modern networking technologies are here to stay, but how do they fit into current government IT regulations and processes? The two main technologies—SDN and “white box” networking solutions—can shed some light on this.

SDN is all about the process

It helps to understand that, despite all of the excitement surrounding tools like SDN, it really isn’t very different from what currently exists. Today, administrators define a network by logging in to the software—the very essence of the term “software-defined.” Take away the hype around SDN, and IT administrators are left with the same basic network management processes under a different architectural framework.

However, that architecture allows administrators to manage their networks much more efficiently. Administrators can run their operations through a central control plane, rather than having to do so at the device level. While communicating with the controller, any configuration change can be replicated to all depending devices at the same time instead of logging in to them individually. Also, there is the additional benefit coming from increased flexibility. It is straightforward to build an if-then scenario so an event on the application layer could start automated action on a lower layer in the system, for example, the network layer.

When used alongside network monitoring solutions, SDN can provide greater control and visibility, allowing for faster security responses.

Increased agility and responsiveness should not provide administrators with a carte blanche approach to network operations. If a network is overloaded with traffic, administrators could quickly decide to create more virtual switches to address the issue, but that does not necessarily mean they will get clearance to do so. The government requires strict documentation and record-keeping every time a new technology is implemented, or an existing one is changed. From the management of IP addresses to the dynamic scaling of resources, administrators should carefully consider and account for changes to ensure that what they are doing does not pose a security risk because—new technologies or not—the old processes still apply. Find your Information Assurance (IA) team, develop a relationship with them, and understand their goals. You may find a significant amount in common, and realise that your intentions aren’t all that different. IA and security are there to ensure things are done in a verifiable and secure manner, not simply to make our lives more complicated.

Watch out for white boxes

Administrators should also not feel pressured to jump on new technologies purely because they offer immediate cost savings or are on trend.

For instance, white box networking solutions—generic networking products not offered by name-brand OEMs—are designed to run on any network, including those that are software-defined, seemingly at a lower cost. Government technology professionals who have become comfortable working with established partners may not want to switch to a generic unknown entity. Fortunately, they probably won’t have to, since OEMs will continue to up their games to help ensure that they stay ahead of the competition.

Even if agencies decide to go down the white box route, there are still other potential issues that need to be considered, particularly in relation to government regulations. For example, IT administrators can’t just purchase a Raspberry Pi and add it to their networks. They need to know who manufactures the tech they are using, where it comes from, and other critical considerations that the government requires. The chipset manufactures, and chip software, may be coming from a terrible developer (best case), or from an adversary looking to infiltrate the network (worst case). Supportability is another topic. Essentially, you purchase hardware and software from different vendors, and the software might even be based on open source. In case of an incident, time is going to be wasted to identify who is going to deal with it. We frequently dismiss the role of supply chain management in IT, but it too plays a crucial role.

Concerns versus benefits

There is much more to consider before moving into network modernisation. Solutions must be compatible across agencies, which can be challenging if every vendor offers a different version of SDN. Agencies need to make sure they have the right people in place for the job and are embracing a pattern of continuous employee education. Finally, typically slow procurement processes need to be accelerated, if possible, to match the pace of innovation.

Despite these concerns, modern network solutions can provide great benefits to government IT teams. They are designed to pinpoint, control, and rapidly respond to potential security risks, even across highly distributed and abstract networks. They can save significant money in the long run, since they will not have to invest in patching or maintaining outdated systems.

But perhaps most crucial of all, modern solutions can be implemented to create a network foundation in preparation for future innovations. Though these will likely need to fit the mould of existing government processes, the foundations will be in place to support ever more scalable and secure networks. The same way that Big Data is the requirement for any AI, SDN is the requirement for intent-based networking.

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