MeriTalk spoke with six key Federal IT suppliers about the Federal government’s mostly successful nine-month scramble to remote work and service delivery, with executives forecasting 2021 as a crucial opportunity to rework architectural, security and workforce concepts to turn the government IT’s year of turmoil in 2020 into lasting performance gains.

“The combined forces of automation and COVID-19 have created an urgent need for reskilling and upskilling that will last long after the pandemic is over,” said Kevin Mills, Head of Government Partnerships at Coursera. “While 91 percent of U.S. businesses are looking to increase digitization due to COVID-19, 80 percent of government organizations are still at the initial or developing digital maturity stages.”

“The need for upskilling is especially strong among government organizations as technology adoption is key to serving citizens and communities at scale,” Mills said. “As a result, we’re seeing a growing investment in critical skills like big data, AI, cloud computing, and cybersecurity as well as soft skills like leadership and communication. We expect government agencies to continue prioritizing employee upskilling to future-proof their workforce and advance their mission.”

“While remote at scale is real – edge will be key for continued success – moving compute and data processing closer to the customer in an edge/managed augmentation of hybrid cloud is key to the continued success of cloud and the growth of workloads,” said Phil Fuster, Senior Director, Public Sector Sales at Rackspace Technology.

“Edge will provide the promise of faster compute, data sovereignty, and minimal data synchronization to the central cloud during replication,” Fuster said. “With a post-pandemic world that is likely to remain distributed, moving closer to the edge will not only enable the use of mobile devices, video collaboration tools and virtual reality content; it is key for agencies to truly embrace and implement emerging technology solutions like IOT sensors, SMART city solutions and distributed AI applications.”

“Developers are more important than ever in the technology ecosystem, as data and code become currency,” explained Carl De Groote, Area Vice President, U.S. Federal at Cisco Systems. “We have ample amounts of data that it’s now a matter of how fast we can organize and apply it to drive ‘wins’ or mission outcomes.”

“For example, the U.S. Postal Service is using artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve end-to-end parcel data processing speeds and accuracy. This intelligence enables the Postal Service to actively drive insights to improve throughout rates on high volumes of e-commerce packages for some of the nation’s largest e-tailers,” he said. “In the Defense Department, each service member in the field is equipped with several IP addresses to track their location, and the data can be used to deploy resources to the front lines and even send drones to stop bullets. It sounds futuristic, but it’s already here.”

Drew Schnabel, Vice President of Federal at Zscaler, offered a range of scenarios for 2021, perhaps most hopeful among them being Federal government provision of multi-year funding for agency technology. “There will be significant focus on multi-year funding in 2021 and beyond,” he said. “The Office of Management and Budget will increase the Technology Modernization Fund, and agencies will streamline the overall acquisition process – aiming to continue 2020’s accelerated pace of change. Leaders will be empowered to make better and more strategic technology investment decisions.”

On the security front, he predicted that “zero trust will graduate from buzz word to central security tenant. The next push will be piloting zero trust use cases as the focus shifts from protecting the network to protecting data – including data in motion, in the cloud, and on the endpoint with zero trust and secure access service edge models.”

And Schnabel predicted an “exponential increase” in edge computing that will “put the final nail in legacy systems’ coffins.” He continued, “While there is great opportunity for cloud computing capabilities at the edge through fog computing or multi-access edge computing, moving to the edge will open a Pandora’s box of new security concerns. Agencies will need tighter partnerships with cloud service providers to align their endpoint management to their transport security capabilities to keep data, networks, and users secure.”

Egon Rinderer, Global VP of Technology and CTO at Tanium, minced few words in warning about the heightened importance of achieving better cybersecurity in 2021.

“If we don’t close the holes around current existential threats, all the bells and whistles and ‘next gen’ compensating security control in the world aren’t going to matter,” he said. “Ninety percent of malware that is successful is so because we’ve simply not dealt with enormous swaths of fundamental endpoint insecurity. Mark my words, malware, especially that associated with ransomware and advanced persistent threats (APTs), is and will continue to increase precipitously over the coming months unless we focus on the foundational elements of security and IT hygiene.”

“In 2021, CISOs had better buckle up,” Rinderer warned. “Ransomware is transitioning from primarily targeting SMBs to large enterprises. It’s lucrative and, relatively speaking, easy to execute. With the explosion in poorly protected endpoints and users operating outside the protective perimeter of the enterprise, this is the year for it. Ransomware as a service will be one of the highest impact technologies. Cybercriminals are evolving their business model to include for hire services that will target our distributed workforces and any endpoint that isn’t appropriately protected.”

Nick Psaki, Principal System Engineer and Federal CTO at Pure Storage, echoed that sentiment, saying, “Cybersecurity is going to be center stage – and both the Federal government and private sector will be paying attention to data protection. Cybersecurity will be ‘cool’ again, and ransomware mitigation and recovery will be a premier use case. Agencies should focus on preparation now rather than reacting after an attack occurs. When security is built into the platform, it’s more efficient and effective than adding it on afterwards.”

“We are also going to see artificial intelligence and machine learning operations continue to mature as new capabilities roll out,” he said. “Ideas that were thought bubbles in acquisition and activity in years prior will start to come to fruition.  Particularly when you consider partnerships between industry, government, and academia.”

“Finally, we are going to see a fundamental transformation of government core infrastructure and capabilities – cloud transformation, adoption of containerization, and leveraging of infrastructure that enables government to seamlessly move back and forth between on premise and cloud,” Psaki said. “The government is adopting new workloads, new use cases, and new methods of creating operational applications and constituent services. The government is going ‘government-as-a-service.’”

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.