Government IT disasters are so predictable they could be automated

If IT can liberate us from tedious repetitive tasks, Nick Booth wonders if someone couldn't design an automated due diligence system that saves us from public sector IT cock ups

Given that it's supposed to cut costs and boost productivity, IT doesn't always meet its brief very well does it?

Every new labour saving invention seems to introduce new, even more tedious tasks, in order to maintain it.  And that's when they actually work. The one's that don't – like the cancelled eBorders contract that involved Raytheon  – just cost us hundreds of millions for a system that doesn't deliver on its promise.

Why did the system never work? And how come this failure hasn't seen Raytheon penalized? Perhaps the answer is that in corporations, the internal IT manager has to deliver or get sacked and never work again. So they make sure they ask lots of questions. Whereas in the public sector it's not their money and nothing's their responsibility.

 

Maybe there should be less emphasis on 'disruptive technology' and more time spent on fine tuning existing systems.

 

Maybe there should be less emphasis on 'disruptive technology' and more time spent on fine tuning existing systems. That might involve asking lots of difficult questions, but the more this is done the better the craft will become.

One IT inventor who seems to live by this rule is Jody Brazil, CEO of Firemon, which is dedicating its time to making existing security systems work more efficiently, instead of constantly 'disrupting' the clientele.

Firewall management isn't exactly a new discipline, it's been around for at least a decade, but it does need refining. Especially now that virtualization has multiplied the complexity and made us all hostage to each change that the IT manager creates.

This creates a huge workload for the security managers. Every time there is a change in how IT services are dished out, they have to tweak the security, so that rules of engagement are set up. (Who gets access to which ports, where when how and why). Getting details of those changes has traditionally been a manual process. So when John in marketing is given his allocation of privacy invading apps, processing power, money and storage for that special marketing project, the poor security manager would have to manually get all these details from the various departments involved. Getting the information about this new set up would be a long and painful enough process in itself and could take weeks, even though the parties involved would be motivated to make it happen. When the special marketing project was over, extracting the details would be like pulling teeth.

"No one ever tells you when they don't need access any more," says Brazil. As a result, many IT systems are subject to hundreds of thousands of rules, many of which are counter productive and slow the system down. In banking, compliance regulations compel many security bosses to review every set of security rules in their IT infrastructure every two weeks. As a result, around 15 people would be pulled off productive work, in order to spend all day chasing up people who hide behind their email and their answering systems. All the information they did manage to glean would be typed into a spreadsheet, which they'd eventually use to update their security rules.

Brazil's invention, Firemon, somehow automated these tasks, so that what took 15 people weeks to compile (in one particular Dutch bank) can now be achieved by one man and his machine in minutes.

Similarly, Cirba has invented a way to automatically allocate IT resources to departments and the jobs they run which, incredibly, is another process that has been run manually. Instead of relying on department heads to give a timely and honest assessment of what computing resources they'll need and when, the system works it out all for them, on the fly, and matches their requirements with whatever is available on the cloud.

Meanwhile IBM and RF Code have automated audits, which are another time consuming, boring (and so frequently error prone) job that is a massive drain on staff resources. They can now complete a full cycle of inventory within one minute

"The most time consuming and boring job in IT is by far Log Management," says IT technician Lee Greenshields. Checking the logs on each server can take up to 4 hours, so Greenshields is researching ways to make this easier. "I'm currently working on a system that makes auditing hardware and software automated, by implementing a GLPI server and using fusion inventory agents on our systems to collect the data.

So there's plenty of inventiveness in IT still. If only someone would automate the process of due diligence for public sector IT contracts, imagine how many billions they could save the taxpayer.
 

This was last published in August 2014

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