As the proverbial belt tightens around information technology budgets nationwide, tech professionals are turning to advances like cloud computing and open source applications to help deliver consolidated tech services at a lower cost.

But does the growing trend signal the extinction of expensive integrated systems? Experts think so, but questions remain on when those collaborative approaches will become the standard government IT model. The consensus? It won’t be anytime soon.

While IT departments across all levels of government experiment with various types of cloud-based services and interagency systems, private-sector officials said the transition won’t be fully realized until IT starts to be thought of as a service rather than a product.

“Infrastructure as a service is generally what people talk about [in regard] to consolidation,” said Terry Weipert, a partner with Accenture, a management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company. “It isn’t really about the technology; it’s about the services to develop additional apps.”

To ease the transition into that service-minded approach, Andrea Di Maio predicted that integrators will be in high demand. Di Maio, lead government IT analyst for IT research and advisory company Gartner, said although it’s clear that government wants to rely less on big integrators, the complexity of IT systems won’t decrease, leading to a need for those that integrate different systems. While governments at all levels are undergoing change, he said state and local governments have a greater potential for application and system reuse, so shared services make more sense at those levels.

But history regarding government usage of technology reveals no guarantees for how or when this process will actually occur. “On the other hand, this has always been the case,” Di Maio said, “and not much has happened before now.”

Public-sector officials are on the same page. “I would say we’re going toward more integrated solutions with partners,” said Michigan CIO David Behen. “Those days where a [company] goes in and sells a $70-million system are coming to an end,” he said. “I think with the cloud and [new] technology, we can just do things across boundaries better than we’ve ever been able to do before.”

Utah CIO Steve Fletcher said that it does take a little time to migrate from “those big systems to more flexible ones you can roll out. It is slow to change, but it should change because it is a much better way to go.”

A Federal Priority

Top federal IT officials are leading the charge to reinvent how IT implementations are done agencywide. Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra explained that while he and the federal CIO have separate roles, both operate under the goal of generating new ideas to use technology cost-effectively and productively.

“We’re changing the model in both directions, and my responsibility is to surface change as the government extends to the American people,” Chopra said. “Conversely my colleague, the CIO, has been looking at the guts of how we run the government. What e-mail systems we are using, why can’t we use cloud-based [platforms], etc. We’re tackling this idea of IT from the external in and the internal out.”

To that end, Chopra outlined three main points that are guiding the federal transformation to a more collaborative IT approach.

The first, “precompetitive research and development,” is centered around connecting innovative businesses and individuals with the $150 billion spent annually by the federal government on research and development. The second involves opening up government data across the board to let people create new apps. The third is developing a voluntary industry consensus standard for data and its transmission.

“The vision is simple — the goal is to effectively invent our way out of the some of the long-standing challenges that confront us,” Chopra said. “We believe that the combination of the entrepreneurial spirit of a Silicon Valley startup and the convening power of the federal government can help us solve the problems that confront us as a nation.”

New Platforms and Open Source

In regard to precompetitive research and development, Chopra spoke highly of SMART (Substitutable Medical Apps, reusable technologies) Platforms, a project that seeks to recruit and support a new generation of developers by providing a common interface to multiple health IT platforms.

Chopra said that a $15 million grant was issued on a competitive basis to Harvard Medical School researchers, who committed to publishing the first of their application programming interfaces (APIs) by March 2011. The APIs will let other developers connect into their research and create Web apps, such as medication management tools, e-prescribing applications and other programs that provide value to patients, providers, researchers and public health entities.

The first of the APIs was released earlier this year, and SMART Platforms issued a $5,000 challenge to encourage app developers to build off the research and development from Harvard personnel. The quick turnaround is something Chopra says sets a great example for how similar, future technology innovations should be handled.

“[This] might have been a three-to-five year research project that would be in a whitepaper submitted to the National Science Foundation,” Chopra said about how a similar program would’ve been handled previously. “I don’t know whether … products that will compete in this area will be ready for the public in three to six months or a year, but I can assure you it will be much faster than what would otherwise have happened had we not engaged in precompetitive R&D collaboration.”

The second prong, opening government data to innovators, is something Chopra believes can be easily done with startling results. One successful venture he said is first lady Michelle Obama’s Apps for Healthy Kids contest, which was based on a U.S. Department of Agriculture database of 1,000 commonly eaten foods.

A video game to teach kids about nutritional eating habits was created first using a standard government procurement method that, while being developed, didn’t generate much fanfare. But by opening that data to the public and launching a wide-ranging competition, Chopra said 100 apps or games built during the contest spurred a number of startup companies. Sixteen of the apps or games also were awarded prizes.

“What we have done in this second category of open data is to [feed] off the entrepreneurial energy of the American people [to create] their own version of these activities that achieves the mission objective to encourage folks to eat healthier, but … by opening up the aperture and inviting a lot more voices in,” Chopra explained.

In the third policy point of voluntary standards, Chopra iterated an example of how patient medical records from a primary doctor in northern Virginia couldn’t be transferred electronically to another physician in Arizona because there were no technical standards present to allow for safe, secure e-mail.

Within 90 days, 80 companies developed technical specifications for safe, secure authenticated e-mail. Three months later, the same group shared a reference implementation for the standards.

According to Chopra, 95 percent of health-care IT vendors in the marketplace have pledged to adopt the direct specifications. “That means in one year, we’ve gone from nobody really having access to safe, secure e-mail across networks to everybody having access in short order,” he said.

The continued advancement of collaborative approaches on a smaller scale may seem like a death sentence for companies specializing in big IT infrastructure rollouts. But observers are fairly confident that the traditional system integrators can adapt to the changing tech landscape.

When asked about the traditional government IT partners and their future in a more mission-specific IT approach, Chopra remained neutral, but indicated that competition will be more wide open than ever before. “I have great confidence that as we shift our policies, those that have been historically serving the federal government will adapt to that change, because they have to,” he said. “As we move to standardization, open data and R&D collaboration, what is obvious is that we are extending the opportunity for small and medium-sized businesses. That is an exciting but needed change to increase the supply base of companies that can serve the needs of our federal government.”

Accenture, one of those larger companies, welcomed the challenge. Weipert said there was a lot of opportunity, particularly since the first step is cloud computing — right in Accenture’s wheelhouse of services.

Despite Weipert’s confidence, Gartner’s Di Maio said it was certain the big integrators would feel pressure on their profit margins.

“Of course there will be winners and losers in the market,” he said, “depending on how rapidly the big integrators will be able to adapt to the new attitude toward buying, including the preference for smaller contracts, the push toward the adoption of open standards and the need to engage smaller vendors as part of the supply chain.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.