Former CTO of Defense Agency Discusses Government IT Challenges

Automation and orchestration technology can address a raft of challenges facing federal agencies.


Dave Mihelcic recently joined Juniper Networks to head the federal technology and strategy group after a long career in government IT, including the past 12 years as CTO of the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA). In this interview, Mihelcic discusses the unique challenges facing government IT, how automation can improve operational efficiency, and the importance of cybersecurity.

What are the biggest technology management challenges facing DISA and the Department of Defense (DoD)?

The first is speed. Government processes for identifying and evaluating technology, then matching budgets with that technology and finally acquiring the technology, can be slow. A DoD organization could take 18, 24, or even 36 months to go through the process.

Second, most small, leading-edge technology companies aren’t experienced in dealing with the federal government. They think they can come in, show the value of the product, and get a deal on the spot. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Often either the company does not have the resources or experience to bring the deal to fruition.

Finally, cybersecurity has been a huge concern of the Department of Defense ever since I’ve been working for the DoD, and my career goes back almost 32 years.

Many enterprises are embracing automation as a way to make their networks and IT infrastructures more efficient. Are DISA and DoD leveraging automation in their networks? If so, what are some of the benefits they’re experiencing?

The DoD has been working with a number of automation and orchestration technologies. Automation allows machines to consistently and reliably execute tasks previously performed manually by systems administrators. Orchestration hooks together those tasks to conduct an entire business process. This has reduced costs because fewer people are involved in operating and maintaining the network — the routers, the switches, the security devices such as firewalls — as well as the computing infrastructure and the software that runs on top of it.

Automation combined with other leading-edge commercial technologies such as cloud computing and software-defined networking (SDN) allow the DoD to reduce the time to deliver usable capabilities to the customer — so-called provisioning time — from weeks or months, to minutes or seconds.

Finally, there’s consistency. If you define an automation and orchestration, it will be executed consistently over time, and that leads to much higher reliability and cybersecurity by reducing human error.

What technology advice would you give to federal agencies that want to modernize their networks and achieve a better TCO?

Number one, focus on capabilities that are interoperable based on recognized standards. This enables you to operate in a multi-vendor environment.

Second, federal agencies should invest in technologies that support automation and orchestration, such as SDN and cloud computing.

Finally, using SDN and data analytics can help federal agencies deliver advanced cyber capabilities. Juniper Networks has a concept called the software-defined secure network that recognizes advanced persistent threats (APTs) in real time. Most importantly, it deploys mitigations on the network all the way down to the network switch to block the propagation of APTs, and if machines have been found to be infected on the backbone, to quarantine those machines until the threat has been mitigated.