5 technologies that integrators are banking on

Integrators are often the conduit through which emerging technologies and new products flow into government agencies. But even the largest service providers — such as those populating this year's top

20 list — face bandwidth constraints when it comes to the number of developments they can absorb and pass on to customers.

Their challenge: Target the right technologies at the right time. That's no easy feat. If vendors aim too far ahead of the maturation curve, they risk backing a loser that never gains customer traction. Wait too long, and watch customers flee to a more tech-savvy competitor.

So where have government integrators placed their technology bets? The greatest concentration of activity occurs in five fields: radio frequency identification (RFID), Web services and service-oriented architecture, wireless wide-area networks (WANs), security and data analysis.

The choices don't always represent the bleeding edge of innovation. Web services, for example, have been around for at least three years.

But integrators are typically pragmatists. They can't afford to be too many steps ahead of their customers.

With that in mind, here's the lowdown on the integrators' technology short list.

1. RFID: Mandate spurs rapid growth in use

RFID involves the use of microchip-based tags that contain information about a given object — the contents of a crate or a pallet, for example. The technology is expected to replace bar codes in logistics, inventory management and other

applications.

In July, Pentagon officials issued a final rule on RFID use, which makes the technology mandatory on material scheduled for delivery after Jan. 1, 2005. The government's activity mirrors that of the private sector. Officials at retailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc. plan a major RFID release next year.

Endorsements on the scale of Wal-Mart point to a maturing technology and have made RFID a major area of integrator interest. Agencies compelled to comply with RFID directives want their systems integrators to help, said Sophie Mayo, a director at IDC.

Steve Petchon, managing partner of Accenture's Government Center, said RFID is an area in which company executives are making big investments. He said Accenture officials have worked with some clients to test RFID technologies.

In one project, called Accenture Smart License Plates, RFID tags are embedded in license plates to facilitate electronic payment of tolls and control access to specified traffic zones, company officials said.

But integrators said tags are only the tip of the RFID iceberg. Indeed, integrators are delving deeper into the technology's workings. Officials at Northrop Grumman Information Technology, for example, have an RFID middleware product in development, said Robert Brammer, the company's chief technology officer. The product will help integrate RFID systems.

"The global standards for RFID aren't there yet," Brammer said. Defense Department officials want to "use RFID tags for a range of purposes, and without the standards, you need some way to make sure all the systems can talk to each other."

DOD officials have already tapped integrators for RFID work. Officials at the Defense Logistics Agency, for example, have used systems integrators in tests of passive RFID, said Thomas Neufer, chief of DLA's Distribution Planning and Transformation Branch, Logistics Operations Directorate. Integrators also may take part in projects implementing passive RFID at two of the agency's Strategic Distribution Platforms, he said.

But beyond DOD, some integrators question how quickly the market will develop. "I don't know that we've got many solid killer" applications, said Gene Zapfel, a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. "Civilian agencies don't have that scale of supply chain" compared to DOD.

The Agriculture Department's animal ID program, part of the USDA's effort to contain mad cow disease, is one civilian RFID application Zapfel is watching. "Agriculture [officials have] said RFID is the technology of choice," he added.

2. Web services: Open-standards technology comes of age

Web services aren't necessarily new, but the technology is hitting its stride, and integrators are continuing to invest in it.

This open-standards take on distributed computing relies on protocols such as Extensible Markup Language (XML) and Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP). Today, federal officials use Web services — instead of vendor-proprietary methods — to integrate applications.

Brand Niemann, a computer scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency, said several of the agency's Web services tests "qualify as application and even enterprise integration."

Integrators are drawn to Web services as the approach gains momentum as an integration method. "More and more, we will see Web services weave itself into everything systems integrators are doing," Mayo said.

As Web services mature, integrators are pushing their initiatives beyond the technology's core protocols. "The bigger challenge is to anticipate other open standards beyond XML and beyond SOAP that are emerging," Petchon said. The task is to build flexible architectures that let customers adopt protocols as the protocols solidify, he said.

Some industry watchers believe Web services may provide the foundation for service-oriented architectures. Such architectures encapsulate application functions as reusable components, which are referred to as services. Services can be orchestrated to perform specific tasks.

Service-oriented architectures are a technologist's dream, Zapfel said. "You design something once, and it gets to be used again and again. Whether or not clients are ready to take advantage of it is the big question."

3. Wide-area wireless: Casting a bigger net

Integrators see growth in wireless networks, but many focus on the WAN side more than the 802.11 market. "There's a big investment in the area of WANs," Petchon said. "That is the significant growth

opportunity."

He said officials in cities nationwide are considering WANs for public safety or integrated control of traffic lights. Government officials find wireless technology

attractive because it drives down infrastructure costs, he added. Its fundamental appeal is that it's cheaper than running wires through a city.

The governments of New York City and Arizona are among those deploying wireless networks, Petchon said.

GTSI Corp.'s WAN effort focuses on helping customers effectively use the technology and keeping tabs on carrier offerings.

Chris Pate, director of GTSI's Mobile Solutions Technology Practice, said the company helps customers move to more of a data-type connection using a wireless network. Carriers with typically voice-centric backgrounds are starting to expand their business models into data, he said. GTSI has alliances with such carriers as AT&T Wireless, Cingular Wireless LLC, Nextel Communications and T-Mobile USA Inc.

Wireless technology, meanwhile, empowers another field attracting integrator interest: sensor telemetry. Accenture officials define this technology as the use of sensors and two-way wireless communication to gather data for interpretation.

Mayo said sensor telemetry goes beyond RFID. RFID identifies and tracks the movement of assets. In addition to that, Sensor telemetry can report on the state of a given asset, such as temperature, for example.

Accenture officials said sensor telemetry could help government officials monitor hazardous materials shipments.

4. Integrated security: It's not an afterthought anymore

Security is a perennial area of emphasis. Integrators aim to expand solutions based on the numerous products already on the market.

At Northrop Grumman, employees conduct interoperability tests on hundreds of security products. Brammer said customers would prefer to have an integrated solution rather than point products, but building such a system isn't easy. "I think in terms of challenging areas, that's got to be near the top," Brammer said.

One unified solution effort is Northrop Grumman's predictive analysis methodology workstation. The workstation, intended for security analysts, "integrates a dozen different commercial products into a framework the analysts can use to look for different types of attacks on their network systems," Brammer said.

Integration is also important in homeland security applications. Lockheed Martin Integrated Systems and Solutions officials tapped a range of partners to create their trusted information sharing and terrorism risk-assessment platform. They include Acxiom Corp., C-bridge Corp., Forum Systems Inc., IBM Corp., Infoglide Software Corp. and LexisNexis.

Company officials invested about a third of the unit's homeland security research and development funds in the platform's information-sharing element. That technology blocks the release of information that would violate an organization's security and privacy policies.

The idea is to instill confidence in private-sector executives that they can share information without running afoul of their policies, said Dennis Groseclose, deputy vice president for homeland security systems at the Lockheed Martin business unit.

"It's a piece of technology that allows us to convince the major economic players in our economy to share information with the government, or with another trading partner, in order to measure the risk of a terrorist event against a piece of critical infrastructure," Groseclose said.

Some integrators package security within broader offerings. Computer Sciences Corp. officials have invested in their Networks and Telecommunication Integrated Solutions business, which provides carrier management, network management and network information assurance.

In the government sector, those offerings support infrastructure modernization projects, said Austin Yerks, president of business development for CSC's federal sector.

5. Data analysis: Making sense of it all

The rising tide of data — whether from RFID tags, sensors or security systems — has integrators taking a hard look at data-analysis technology.

"The volumes of data you have to analyze are just exploding," Brammer said. He said the combination of broadband networks, declining storage costs and growth of data, such as voice and video, have contributed to the overload.

Accordingly, Northrop Grumman

IT officials have invested in advanced analytic technologies. Data mining and statistical analysis are among the areas of

interest.

Groseclose, meanwhile, said intelligence knowledge management is an area of investment. The goal is to help intelligence analysts sift through the mound of information to glean items of interest, he said.

That's a task analogous to the integrators' technology gatekeeper role: probe through the mass of new technology to find the high-impact developments.

Moore is a freelance writer based in Syracuse, N.Y.

***

The IT short list

Radio frequency identification: Integrators are investing in this technology so that they can help clients deal with federal directives.

Web services: This application integration approach has a great following among integrators.

Wireless wide-area networks: Integrators are pursuing bigger wireless networks as government customers consider public safety and other applications.

Security: The integration of point products into manageable solutions has encouraged integrators to invest research and development dollars.

Data analysis: Integrators believe analysis of captured data is an area ripe for development.

Not always innovators

When it comes to technology, integrators aren't necessarily at the apex of innovation.

That's not a knock against integrators. Because they work in lockstep with customers to deploy technology, they can't devote time and money to pie-in-the-sky pursuits.

"The traditional systems integrator's role is more pragmatic," said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer at Federal Sources Inc.

Integrators tend to spend research dollars on activities such as the compatibility testing of commercial products as opposed to pure, basic research, he added.

Individual integrators, however, step up to the research and development plate. Those with an aerospace and defense background, for example, can and do tap into an R&D culture.

Sophie Mayo, a director at IDC, recently published a study on how integrators maximize their R&D investments. Among the large integrators studied, Accenture and IBM Global Services stood out in terms of innovation, Mayo said.

IBM Global Services, of course, has its parent company's history and IBM Corp. labs to draw on. As for Accenture, Mayo cited company officials' willingness to publicize investments and showcase prototypes.

— John Moore

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