5 tech tools with lasting appeal

An election year and a stagnant economy aren’t slowing government’s appetite for new tech

One CTO’s priorities

Washington Chief Technology Officer Vivek Kundra is an enthusiastic adopter of new technologies. Much of the work he is doing for the district illustrates the direction many agencies are headed. Cost savings are a common thread through all of the initiatives, but capabilities that enable new ways to work and provide more useful information technology services are equally important.

Here are his top projects this year:

Project: Software as a service (or cloud computing)
Benefits: Increases employee
collaboration, reduces power
consumption.

Project: Server virtualization
Benefits: Allows server consolidation, increases server utilization rates dramatically.

Project: Voice over IP
Benefits: Enables new applications that mix voice, video and data; streamlines network management via a consolidated infrastructure.

— Doug Beizer

Among the videos of skateboard tricks and amateur singers on the popular Web site YouTube, viewers can also see coverage of Washington’s conferences for potential bidders on upcoming city procurements.
That use of Web 2.0 technology is just one of many that government agencies will adopt during the next year and beyond, said Vivek Kundra, Washington’s chief technology officer.

Flat budgets, new security concerns and the need to attract fresh talent are leading to the adoption of new technologies and fresh looks at familiar tools such as open source and security.

For example, the old application service provider model has been reborn as cloud computing, though the underlying idea has not changed. Agencies buy applications on a subscription basis rather than paying for the infrastructure to support the software in-house.

The technology also helps government agencies with information sharing and collaboration.

Washington officials recently purchased 38,000 licenses to deliver Google Apps to all the city’s employees.

“With Google Apps, we can have employees working from home, employees sitting in traditional offices, and other employees on travel, all working on the same document, updating it in real time and collaborating,” Kundra said.

But allowing applications to be hosted outside the walls of an agency leads to new security concerns. Technologists from several companies agree that the face of federal IT is about to change significantly, creating new opportunities but also posing challenges. Here are five technologies or IT initiatives they see as front-burner projects this year.

1. Web 2.0
Government agencies are turning to small, portable software programs called widgets and Really Simple Syndication news aggregation to provide information to the public in a new way. The information can be aggregated and displayed on the government’s Web sites and packaged in portable widgets that users can take with them to their favorite Web locations, such as start pages and social-networking sites.

NewsGator, for example, will provide a news aggregation service for USA.gov within the next two months.  
“USA.gov is going to become an even more effective portal for the federal government, the go-to site for those who want to interact with different agencies of Uncle Sam,” said Jeff Nolan, vice president of NewsGator Consumer and Media Services. “They’ll be aggregating both government feeds and posts as well as certain relevant nongovernment, third-party content.”

The government is adopting Web 2.0 technology in part because the consumer market has shown that people like using the tools and find them useful.

2. Open source
Flat IT budgets and a push to speed the implementation of new software are leading to a renewed interest in open-source software, said John Hamilton, IT director at Zenoss, a provider of open-source tools. Agencies and their industry partners can use open source to jump right into developing applications without having to wait for licensing contracts.

Agency officials also appreciate how well open source works with new Web-based applications, Hamilton said.

“Agencies are using open source as a model because it provides that kind of flexibility that a lot of the other software does not necessarily offer,” he said.

As agencies switch from hosting applications in-house to cloud computing, they need a way to monitor those off-site systems to make sure they are operating correctly, especially because the applications might depend on multiple components from different systems.  

“Some branches of the federal space are starting to latch onto software as a service because then you don’t have to have an IT team supporting that service,” Ha milton said.

“The challenge with that is the agencies totally relinquish all control of the systems, so now they rely upon someone else to provide the service,” he added.

3. Security
When the intelligence community launched its own version of Wikipedia, detractors thought the idea of unfettered, online information sharing — by spy agencies no less — was crazy. Although still small, the Intellipedia site has proven that any agency can use the new social-networking tools.

But the advent of social networking and cloud computing brings new security challenges. The old model of building a castle-and-moat type of defense around data with firewalls won’t work anymore, industry observers say. Agencies need to share information, which pokes holes in those firewalls.

“The world of being able to sit on your island is gone, so you really need to think about controlling and managing information itself, not just securing the network that the enterprise runs on,” said Joseph Moorcones, a corporate vice president at Safenet, a provider of security tools.

“We think of protecting data from the time it is created until it is moved from that database to a file somewhere, another application, or a user’s laptop or handheld device,” Moorcones said. “Agencies need to be able to provide a consistent way to control, manage and protect that so that only authorized people have access to it.”

Database encryption is one way to accomplish this, though the focus will be on critical pieces of data and not necessarily entire databases. Critical fields in a database can be encrypted in such a way that agencies do not have to worry about anyone seeing them except the intended recipient.

Observers also expect agencies to continue deploying encryption to laptop PCs and handheld devices. Using encryption to manage data should make lost and stolen laptops a non-issue rather than front-page news.

4. IPv6
An IPv6-enabled Web site for this summer’s Olympic Games might not signal broad adoption of the new Internet protocol, but it does show that it is not far off.

Federal agencies were able to meet the mandate to enable their core networks for IPv6 by June. The next steps for them are to make full use of the technology’s power.  

There are many advantages to using IPv6, including significantly increased capability for deploying large numbers of networks and connected nodes, improved mobility and ad hoc networking, and strong integrated confidentiality.

The technology should also improve real-time communications and make network administration simpler.
Kazuhiro Gomi, chief technology officer at NTT America, recommends that agencies start training employees and users on the full capabilities of IPv6.  

“Another option could be to initiate a competition for applications developers to create new viral IPv6-based [peer-to-peer] applications to drive momentum around adoption,” he said.

For example, an application might allow first responders from various agencies to set up a temporary, ad hoc network for communications when they arrive at the scene of an emergency.

Agencies face a number of challenges in adopting IPv6 fully, Gomi said. Security issues, scalability and integration are among the top hurdles.

Configuration and interoperability issues could also be of concern during the transition because networks will need to support both IPv4 and IPv6 traffic.  

5. Network consolidation
The idea of consolidating data, voice and video onto one network is nothing new, but the mass migration to technologies such as voice over IP that depend on this consolidation is now under way.

A ajor reason for the big shift is because many of today’s phone systems are nearing the end of their useful life, said Susan Zeleniak, a group president at Verizon Business.

“All of the agencies are looking for pricing on voice over IP, even if they’re not ready to go to it today,” she said. “They clearly want to understand what the technology road map will be for getting there.”

Another reason agencies want to consolidate networks is because that approach makes it easier to manage those networks.

“It begins to merge what used to be distinct groups within a technology organization,” Zeleniak said.

“There used to be one group managing voice and another managing data,” she added. “The lines on that now start to cross because it is hard to separate the technologies anymore.” 

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