Technology on the outs in 2012

Technologies come and go. Of course, that’s equally true in government, despite the feds’ propensity to hang on to IT much longer than its recommended expiration date. As refresh cycles turn over, agencies see familiar — and often well-loved — technologies replaced.

We’ve hit unusually uncertain times, however. The “cloud first” mandate, the mobile revolution, cybersecurity fears and budget constraints are just some of the issues that agency leaders must tackle as they consider the future of the IT infrastructure.

With that in mind, Federal Computer Week looked at a handful of familiar technologies that could — or should — be reaching the end of their shelf life in 2012 and pondered the likelihood that they will still be with us in 2013.

Single-function devices: Employees vote with their wallets

Oh, how far the mighty can fall. The ubiquitous BlackBerry garnered a legion of devoted “CrackBerry” users inside the Beltway who could be seen tapping away on its keyboard at all hours and in situations both appropriate and not. You pried it away from users on pain of death.

But that fanaticism is fast disappearing for a device that thrived mainly due to a single function: secure messaging. Enterprise Management Associates recently conducted a survey and found that, although nearly 90 percent of government institutions now make use of BlackBerrys, only 50 percent plan to do so in a year’s time.

“We’re definitely in a transition,” said Steve Brasen, EMA’s managing research director for systems management. “And end users themselves are driving it because they are not happy with the BlackBerry.”

Device selection at agencies used to be driven from the top down, he said. The consumer-oriented iPhone changed that, and now federal employees are increasingly using their personal smart phones to stay connected and want those app-driven productivity tools at work. Right now, they have to carry two devices — the BlackBerry and their own smart phone — to get everything they need, but they want to carry just one.

According to EMA’s research, Apple’s iOS-based devices will take over some 30 percent of the space vacated by the BlackBerry next year, and Android devices will also pick up steam. Pair that with the news that some agencies, including the Veterans Affairs Department, are allowing employees to connect personal devices to government networks, and the BlackBerry's days look to be numbered.

BlackBerry developer Research in Motion has sought to diversify and keep pace with competitors by creating a line of smart phones and a BlackBerry PlayBook tablet PC. But to access secure messaging capabilities, users have to wirelessly link the PlayBook to a BlackBerry smart phone. The company will eliminate that requirement with a new version of the tablet software and add a feature that lets users run Android applications, but the release has been delayed.

Windows XP: If it ain’t broke…

Windows XP is on its way out, but many agencies are reluctant to let it go. Although it’s a decade old, it's stable, and after Service Pack 3 (SP3) was introduced several years ago, it's secure enough. The operating system runs just fine even on older desktop PCs and handles most of the major applications users depend on. Also, many agencies have written mission-specific programs for XP.

Nevertheless, time is running out. Microsoft will end support for SP3 in April 2014, and after that, agencies will be on their own if they want to maintain Windows XP, which raises special concerns about security patches.

Susie Adams, chief technology officer at Microsoft Federal, said she believes the government's attachment to Windows XP is a matter of cost and timing.

“What drives most updates, given that 2014 is so far away, is the life of the device itself,” she said. “Agencies keep desktops for five to seven years, so we’d expect the new operating systems to come in during the normal refresh cycle.”

Agencies could also be waiting to see the debut of Windows 8 next year before deciding whether to upgrade. Windows Vista, the version released after XP, was largely a mess, which made a lot of people delay upgrading to Windows 7. Microsoft officials have promised a much easier and faster upgrade to Windows 8 and said the operating system should run well on systems currently using XP.

Dedicated e-mail servers: Because cloud is mostly better

It will take time, but dedicated e-mail servers will gradually give way to cloud-based systems. Although moving e-mail services to the cloud can immediately save agencies money, concerns about security will lead some to sidestep the public cloud in favor of private clouds that are locked behind agency firewalls and on servers in consolidated data centers.

Civilian agencies that handle less-sensitive data will make the first move to the public cloud, Adams said. Most cloud vendors can meet those agencies' requirements now.

“But the [Defense Department] and the intelligence community are a different story,” she said. “What we are seeing there is a trend first to the private cloud.”

Agencies are finding that the move to the cloud takes organization and involves some cost, so the budget squeeze could lengthen the timelines for those moves. Many agencies are also discovering that their infrastructures can’t handle cloud-based e-mail and must be upgraded first. That was why the Army had to temporarily halt its plans to move e-mail services to the cloud until officials better understood the various ways e-mail was implemented across the organization.

However, a major driver for agencies to move e-mail into the cloud is that it serves as a gateway for other technologies to make the move, said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting. As methods for cloud migrations are developed, organizational and cultural problems will be resolved and the business cases for the move will become much clearer.

“It will open the way for more important and higher-cost applications to be moved into the cloud,” Suss said. “Because of that, I expect to see an accelerated move to the cloud for e-mail services through 2012 and beyond.”

Personal blogs: Gov 2.0’s first mothballed app

Blogs written by executives at agencies and intended to provide insight into policies and decisions, were supposed to be signature Gov 2.0 tools and a direct channel to the public. However, they’ve largely disappeared.

The blog written by Robert Carey when he was the Navy's CIO was generally considered the model for the form. It won several awards and influenced a number of other federal CIOs in writing their own blogs. But the Navy CIO's blog was shut down in December 2010 when Terry Halvorsen replaced Carey, and the archive of blog postings was removed from the Web.

Other blogs have also disappeared, and those that still exist are updated infrequently or have become homes for more formal missives about agency events and announcements.

It could be that other forms of social media now offer the directness that was once the province of agency blogs, said Josh Shpayher, founder of GovSM.com, a site that tracks the government's use of social media. The Navy, for example, is now making an official push to use all forms of social media.

“It’s not necessary to keep up these kinds of blog postings if you can get that with other social media, such as Twitter and Facebook,” Shpayher said. “You still need blogs because you can’t write articles on Twitter and Facebook, but for the more personal side of things, you don’t” need blogs.

He also noted that blog traffic has gone down across the Web because there are other ways for people to share their messages online.

IPv4: No money, no move

IPv4 has been ordered out the door, but it will probably stick around for a while longer.

Agencies have various deadlines they are supposed to meet in switching to IPv6. IPv4 addresses are running out, while IPv6 has a practically unlimited number available and is also seen as more inherently secure.

A memo issued in September 2010 by then Federal CIO Vivek Kundra required agencies to support IPv6 for all public-facing websites and services by Sept. 30, 2012, and to use IPv6 for all internal client applications by Sept. 30, 2014.

But it’s an unfunded mandate, which observers say gives agencies no incentive to hurry. And despite Kundra’s memo, there’s been no big push by the Obama administration to move the upgrade along.

“These are pretty tepid mandates, and I don’t see any aggressive attempt at compliance,” Suss said. “I think agencies believe they will be able to function adequately without IPv6, so they’ll just tick the [appropriate compliance] boxes.”

Some organizations — such as DOD, with its focus on network-centric warfighting — have a more obvious need for IPv6 capability and are being more active about adopting it. But other agencies can use technologies such as network address translation to extend the life of their current IPv4 addresses and therefore don’t feel the same urgency.

Most of those agencies will let the change happen naturally through technology refreshes, Suss said.

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Reader comments

Thu, Jan 26, 2012 JimO

Apply/Blackberry: You forget about the Microsoft/Nokia lash-up. If MS does its normal thing, it will push Apple/Android onto the sideline, just like the MAC compared to the PC.

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