Federal IT professionals often feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. Their “customers” – which include every U.S. citizen as well as legions of internal stakeholders – want them to deliver modern services faster, more securely, and more cost-effectively at a time when workloads and expectations have never been greater. Couple this with record employee transitions and steep competition for talent, and IT professionals face a Herculean mission.

This said, IT leaders are finding that process and infrastructure automation can help them win the day, especially in domains where requirements can change rapidly, such as national security, justice, and law enforcement. The automation landscape, however, is changing rapidly in the age of cloud, artificial intelligence, and new security threats.

To understand best practices and new opportunities, MeriTalk recently connected with David Egts, chief technologist, North American Public Sector at Red Hat. He shares first-hand insight on how Federal IT leaders are advancing automation initiatives to improve service delivery and productivity, boost retention, and elevate security.

MeriTalk: What specific challenges can Federal CIOs address with automation?

Egts: The first challenge involves new service level expectations. Today, constituents hold government service delivery to the same standards that they’ve grown accustomed to in the consumer space. Automation is essential to compressing delivery cycles and accelerating service delivery.

Then there’s cybersecurity, where challenges grow more complex daily. System misconfiguration opens the door to many breaches. Automate configuration, and you reduce the potential for human error in this vital area.

Finally, let’s look at the workforce challenge. We’re in the midst of “The Great Resignation.” Unless you automate, people exiting organizations take valuable institutional knowledge with them. The Federal government cannot afford that loss, especially for agencies involved in national security and law enforcement. Automation also supports retention because it eliminates highly repetitive and mundane processes, freeing employees for more strategic and fulfilling tasks.

MeriTalk: How are Federal IT leaders and staff using automation today?

Egts: We worked with one Federal agency that used automation to break down cultural silos between groups. The agency used Red Hat Ansible Automation Platform to create an organization-wide community of practice for automating common IT tasks such as provisioning and securing virtual machines. This allows team members across the organization to share best practices and make repetitive tasks faster, more consistent, and more cost-effective.

In the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security, there’s a large focus on cloud computing at the edge. However, you can’t always guarantee connectivity to a major cloud provider when you’re in a remote location. With automation, you can centralize the creation of complex workflows and deploy the workflows around the globe, eliminating the need for skilled computer scientists at every location.

There are also important applications related specifically to law enforcement. Laws change, and law enforcement agencies need to rapidly incorporate those changes into their systems. Hardcoding the rules into an application is an expensive, time-consuming, and risky proposition. With automated business rules, agencies can immediately incorporate changes without needing to rebuild the application. Automation also supports more consistent enforcement of laws and more equitable justice as it removes human judgment from certain processes.

MeriTalk: Agencies are focused on integrating Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools into daily operations. How can automation help move this forward?

Egts: Repeatability is essential to operationalizing AI in government, and it’s extremely difficult to achieve without automation. Transparency is necessary for building organizational and public trust around AI. AI deployments are often seen as black boxes where conclusions are made but the rationale for how those decisions were made are opaque. Automation enables developers to document how the AI was built in an objective, human readable and machine readable way, providing much-needed transparency and repeatability.

MeriTalk: Where should Federal IT leaders focus as they implement automation across cloud and hybrid environments?

Egts: When I sit down with C-level executives, I often ask them “Have you automated enough?” The answer is always “no.” Some teams say, “We’re too busy to automate. We’re underwater.” Well, they’re underwater because they’re not automating. Leaders need to make automation a priority, instead of relegating it to their someday list. Once they start automating, they’ll build a productivity flywheel that continues to yield benefits.

MeriTalk: Embracing automation will require integration. What steps can IT leaders take to properly integrate automation technology?

Egts: My advice to IT leaders is “Don’t look at any one tool as being the be all, end all.” It’s important to take a holistic look and instead ask, “What does this tool integrate with?” For example, Red Hat Ansible integrates tightly with ServiceNow, which allows customers to automate IT service requests originating from that system. Just configure it and go. You can also use Ansible to manage any system that you can log into remotely. This means you can automate management of workloads running on Windows servers as well as network, storage, and even cloud services configuration.

Integration also plays an important role in the realm of virtual machines. Rarely does someone just want to provision a virtual machine. They also want to run applications, connection to external databases, and more. That’s where integration comes into play. You can define Ansible playbooks to automatically reconstitute an entire application stack, including virtual machines, storage, network switches and cloud resources. This capability saves critical time and resources, and delivers repeatable consistency.

MeriTalk: Zero trust architecture and automation are shaping the future of digital security. How do zero trust and automation go hand-in-hand?

Egts: Automation tools can do a lot of good, but they can also do a lot of damage in the wrong hands. To help ensure that automation workflows are run by only authorized personnel, Red Hat Ansible aids with zero trust implementations through role-based access controls that limit access and actions. The web server team can only run automation workflows applicable to web servers, and the security team can only run automation workflows applicable to cybersecurity.

Automation can also help secure employee onboarding and offboarding processes. Employees and contractors joining and departing organizations present the opportunity to give people too much access and possibly overlook deactivating accounts when they leave. Keeping track of all of this by hand presents significant risk. Automated workflows can integrate with HR systems and make managing these processes instant and consistent, reducing the chance for human error and boosting overall security.

MeriTalk: How does Red Hat deliver automation solutions to help Federal IT teams improve internal processes and help IT leadership and staff perform daily tasks?

Egts: Many automation solutions predate the cloud and weren’t designed to support today’s multi-cloud environments. Ansible, in comparison, was designed with the cloud in mind and for whatever comes next. For example, nobody was talking about edge computing five years ago, but Ansible was ready.

It’s also cloud agnostic and vendor agnostic. If you train your team once on Ansible for your on premises applications, you can extend those skills to the clouds, no matter what clouds you choose.

Simply stated, Ansible helps advance security, optimize your workforce, and accelerate service delivery – that’s a powerful value proposition.

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MeriTalk Staff