COVID-19 shifts network priorities

Network infrastructure is a key to unlocking remote work in the new COVID environment, say agency CIOs.

communications (windwheel/

The response to COVID-19 has focused IT modernization efforts toward network infrastructure agility and scalability, agency CIOs said in a May 19 webinar.

Where the Department of Transportation, like other federal agencies, had been used to building and securing a network centered on headquarters and satellite offices, the remote workforce demanded by its pandemic response has made the agency think about how to do the same with an outwardly focused network, said Ryan Cote CIO at the agency.

"We had always thought about how to protect the network from the inside," he said in remarks at ACT-IAC's webinar on the "New Digital Normal." Now, the workforce is outside those protections, he said. The department has adjusted to that change, working with its cloud and network providers to balance performance and security for its users, he said.

That adjustment included not only a cultural shift for workers, but also scaling up virtualization software licensing for remote workers, he said.

In the same webinar, Department of Agriculture CIO Gary Washington said his agency has been thinking hard about network infrastructure needs and using data analytics capabilities to help hone requirements.

"Infrastructure is no longer an afterthought" for modernization planning, he said. The agency's broad spectrum of remote offices spread across the U.S. require connectivity to serve farmers, said Washington. The pandemic has increased those agricultural customers' need to access USDA services, he said.

"Working remotely hasn't resulted in a dip in productivity," said Washington. The agency's push to implement more data analytics capabilities for its networking shows that increase. The USDA's IT modernization effort that began two years ago has brought a heightened focus on agility, scalability and security that has been handy in the COVID world, he said.

In the current environment, government customers are more eager to talk about putting newer services into use more quickly, said Zain Ahmed vice president, civilian and law enforcement sales at telecommunications provider CenturyLink.

"There's a more robust need for SD-WAN [software-defined, wide-area networking], to pilot it and push it out to field sites," he said during the webinar. "We're having that conversation with customers," he said.

Two months ago, pre-COVID, agencies had been thinking about how to balance IT modernization and transition to the General Services Administration's next-generation Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions telecommunications contract, said Ahmed. Now they're looking at how to quickly and agilely adapt, scale and secure their networks to power their remote workforces and not necessarily in those narrower parameters, he said.