Key Federal IT suppliers agree that 2020 has been the year of making remote work and service delivery happen by any means necessary, and say that 2021 represents the opportunity for government to build better security and modern architecture into Federal networks as the remote-access experiment becomes the standard way of doing business and delivering services.

That’s the top-line message from discussions with officials from several leading private sector firms supplying the government, who spoke with MeriTalk to sum up their top lessons learned in 2020, and their number-one priorities for 2021.

While their prescriptions may vary according to business specialties, executives from six firms – Cisco Systems, Pure Storage, Tanium, Zscaler, Rackspace Technology, and Coursera – agree that 2021 is a crucial building year for government agencies to profit from their hard-won experience during 2020.

First, some of the biggest lessons from 2020:

“The most important thing in government IT infrastructure is the data – and 2020 proved that,” said Nick Psaki, Principal System Engineer and Federal CTO at Pure Storage. “Infrastructure is built to support the protection, access, and distribution of data. This is how the Federal government makes decisions, offers services, and operates as efficiently as possible. The pandemic is a compelling event that validated and tested every theory, practice, and program for disaster recovery. This could not be done in a test environment – it was done live, and preparedness met opportunity.”

“We also learned a lot about network bandwidth,” Psaki said. “The Federal government spent decades building a wall to eliminate as many external vulnerabilities as possible – and put everyone on one side of that wall. This year, everyone was forced to the other side of the wall with remote work. Virtual infrastructure became huge – and it showed that the framework currently in place – from policy to acquisition mechanisms – worked. That is stunning. In an unprecedented year, the government embraced the challenges and was able to do so because of years of preparation.”

“Like the rest of the world, the federal government has had to adjust to the new world of remote work in 2020,” said Egon Rinderer, Global VP of Technology and CTO at Tanium. “The biggest concern is managing and securing a remote user base. Traditionally, they locked down rights and privileges on the endpoint, creating a strong account and execution privilege posture.”

“However, they are not tooled appropriately to provide secure connectivity while maintaining complete remote management and visibility of their users,” Rinderer said. “Given the continued uncertainty of the pandemic into 2021, the federal government needs to focus on these fundamentals for a secure, remote workforce.”

“2020 was the year we learned government missions can thrive in a mass telework posture,” said Drew Schnabel, Vice President of Federal at Zscaler. “Agencies have innovated to rapidly scale remote work environments, connect teams, and successfully conduct operations.”

“We have also collectively learned we need to think about security differently in this environment,” he said. “New approaches, such as Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) and zero trust access models – that move essential security functions to the cloud while pushing security as close to the user, data, and device as possible – will help keep employees stay productive and safe.”

“By far, the COVID-19 pandemic has been the most impactful event across the globe this year,” said Carl De Groote, Area Vice President, U.S. Federal at Cisco Systems. “We had to pivot to new ways of working, powered by cloud applications and scalable, secure platforms and networks. While the change was abrupt in many industries, many government agencies and private sector enterprises were already operating remotely at scale. For some, full-time remote work may be here to stay, but for even more government employees, we’re seeing the rise of the hybrid workforce – part-time remote, part-time in the office.”

“Mission demand spurred investments in emerging technologies such as robotics process automation (RPA), as well as mass-scale infrastructure to connect people, applications, and data at scale, from the network core to the edge,” De Groote continued. “Mass-scale platforms, for example, enabled the Department of Defense (DoD) to rapidly connect people and resources to sustain critical mission operations. As a result, the armed forces have faster access to better data. We’ve seen renewed emphasis on improving data accessibility across the enterprise in order to drive faster and better decision making across government.”

“Cloud’s promise of its ability to scale is real, and has enabled agencies to lift and shift quickly and continue operating throughout an unprecedented crisis that could have easily brought mission-critical processes, workforce productivity and essential citizen services to a halt,” said Phil Fuster, Senior Director, Public Sector Sales at Rackspace Technology.

“Cloud solutions enabled the shift to a remote government workforce, proving that remote at scale is very possible for government agencies and can be sustained,” he said. “Government has seen an uplift in productivity of nearly 17 percent with its workforce remote, and the future looks bright for those who want to remain remote workers.”

NEXT, Federal IT suppliers forecast the biggest opportunities for 2021 as government shifts architectures and security concepts to lock in gains from its hard-won shift to remote delivery in 2020…

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