Netscape co-founder and prominent tech investor Marc Andreessen famously noted that "software is eating the world." Unfortunately, it's also eating the lunch of most enterprises, including federal agencies.
For all the talk about wasteful government IT spending, little is said about the costs agencies pay to patch buggy software, a consequence of the industry's predisposition to release their wares now and fix them later. For Robert Jack, CIO of the U.S. Marine Corps, those costs aren't incidental.
"We have roughly 300,000 people, of which a third have day-to-day access to the enterprise network," Jack said at a recent forum on cybersecurity. "I have to defend the network at the desktop or end-user device. I have over 450 registered systems that are regressed to 10 significant versions. When we get a patch from a vendor, we have to go out and test that against all that."
He continued, "Think about the labor hours where I have to touch [and administer patches on] all those devices. And that's just for one patch." Every week, dozens of new vulnerabilities are catalogued by US-CERT, the government's computer emergency readiness team, offering a glimpse of the headaches Jack and CIOs like him face.
Speaking to the software industry at large, Jack said bluntly, "You're killing me."
[ As cloud and mobile proliferates, federal IT leaders should take more data-centric approach to security. Read Secure Data, Not Devices. ]
The staggering cost of software bugs is hard to nail down. However, a Cambridge University study released earlier this year estimated that finding and fixing coding problems costs software makers and the global economy $312 billion a year. That doesn't reflect what customers must also spend to patch and maintain that software on their networks.
The problem, however, goes well beyond the mechanics of software and system maintenance. It also goes to the heart of network security and the growing risks associated with unknown software vulnerabilities, Jack said. Having spent 40 years in charge of command, control, communications, computers and cyber operations for the Air Force, the Defense Department and now the Marine Corps, Jack knows the problems as well as anyone.
Software by its nature is a work in progress. While vendors can't anticipate every problem, some of which are spawned when software interacts with other software on a network, vendors are making too many calculated compromises in order to ram their products and updates into production, Jack said. But worse, they're exposing organizations and their executives to growing liabilities if something goes wrong.
Jack pointed to recent reports, which he didn't specify, indicating that 25% of hospital operating room liability lawsuits are now tied to software coding problems. Lawsuits based on software failures are also becoming a big concern for the auto industry, he said, and the issue has prompted high-level discussions within the Defense Department.
It's only a matter of time before the high-profile enterprises become targets for liability lawyers looking to exploit software mishaps, Jack warned, adding that those in positions of authority ought to consider "looking for some big-time insurance."