Speeding mission-critical software development, securely
Software has long been an important component of technology's increasing impact on our world. But that importance has been growing at a rate that many would find surprising. “Software has now become foundational to almost everything people do," as Paul Burnette, Vice President of Leidos' Software Accelerator, put it. “We're certainly seeing it drive what's going on in technology in every part of the federal government, from intelligence to health to defense."
Burnette, along with Leidos Software Architect Drew Formica, recently discussed the ways in which the Leidos Software Accelerator is addressing the challenges posed by that rapidly evolving software landscape—challenges that are especially critical in the realm of mission-critical software. “We're focusing the Accelerator on solving those mission-critical problems for our customers," said Burnette. “It's become central to our own mission."
Mission-critical software's special demands
Software that directly impacts the ability of defense and other customers to carry out their missions has always had to meet more stringent criteria for functionality, reliability, and especially security. But today, there is a new urgency to enhance the development of mission-critical software related to national security. “Our near-peer adversaries are rapidly advancing their technology, and it's requiring us to push our systems to adapt and to accomplish new missions at a pace we're not yet really used to," explained Burnette.
The result, noted Formica, is that there's a new need for speed in mission-critical software development. “Providing that speed isn't just about keeping up with the latest trends," he said. “It's a matter of everyone's safety."
But speeding up the development of mission-critical software is no easy task, added Formica. “Mission software systems have to manage complexity in fast-changing environments that involve precision and scale," he said. He pointed out that these systems directly determine everything from whether a suspicious bag slips through a checkpoint to the ability of battlefield commanders to make rapid decisions on which many people's lives depend.
The real advances in faster software development have come from the commercial sector, noted Burnette. That's why a key strategy for the Leidos Software Accelerator has been to find ways to fuse the leading-edge techniques being pioneered in Silicon Valley and other start-up communities with the special demands of the defense world and other mission-critical customers. “Today's fast is tomorrow's slow," said Burnette. “We need to deliver with the speed of a startup, without compromising on precision, scale, or security."
The key to leveraging that mix is collaboration, said Formica. “We work closely with the customer to understand their pain points, their mission goals, and what efficiencies they want to achieve," he explained. “Once we understand that, we collaborate across all of Leidos to find out what similar problems have been solved, and what new approaches are coming out of the commercial sector. Then we can share with the customer our vision for where we can take them."
Adaptability and security
Burnette noted that part of the challenge is to integrate technologies that are not only new enough to provide advanced capabilities but mature enough to ensure stable, reliable results. What's more, introducing solutions based on newer technologies to federal customers who often work with legacy systems requires special planning. “We put a lot of effort into making sure our solutions fit into a larger digital modernization strategy, and into helping our customers achieve a smooth transition," he said.
Solution adaptability is also critical, noted Burnette. “Because the technology landscape changes so quickly, we have to make sure we don't build solutions that are locked into a particular vendor or technology," he said. “We want our systems to be modular, open, and standards-based, so when new technology shows up on the scene, we can easily update our customer solutions to take advantage of the features and efficiencies it brings."
But in all cases, software security comes first, emphasized Formica, which means delivering solutions designed to work in a “zero trust" environment. “Our systems have to be able to validate access in every component and at every level of the system, as well as across different systems," he explained. “And we need to know exactly what's in our software because when new vulnerabilities are identified, we need to understand exactly what's affected and what's at risk."
Because mission-critical systems can impact people's lives, special care must be taken to ensure that even successful cyberattacks don't take the systems down, added Burnette. “We saw how the ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline forced the pipeline operators to shut it down, stopping the flow of gasoline from the Gulf of Mexico to the entire East Coast," he said. “We want our solutions to be resilient enough to bend without breaking." That means being able to cordon off any part of the system that's been breached, while continuing to retain enough functionality to continue the mission.
Digital wind tunnels
Looking ahead, Burnette noted that the Leidos Software Accelerator is exploring ways to integrate artificial intelligence technologies into solutions. “We want to be able to advance our customers' capabilities and lower their mission risks, without compromising reliability," he said. In addition, the Accelerator has been working to develop simulated battlefields and other real-world environments in order to more thoroughly test new software, noted Burnette, comparing these simulations to digital wind tunnels for testing aircraft.
But whatever new technologies become available, the Software Accelerator's mission will remain constant, insisted Formica. “We're going to keep delivering solutions that support our customers' missions and help their end-users get the job done," he said. “That's what drives the passion here."
For more details, we invite you to listen to our podcast – Speeding Mission-Critical Software Development.