Hot or not: With tech, there's always change

New technologies kept federal managers from falling into any routine

Be thankful. A career in information technology has to be more exciting than designing hand dryers for public restrooms. The biggest technology development of the past 40 years in that market has been replacing the on/off switch with an infrared motion detector.

Compare that innovation to the pace of change in IT.

And now, the one area in which hand dryers arguably held an advantage compared to computers — they no longer wasted paper — is gone. This year the tech industry discovered environmental responsibility.

Read more about IT’s green revolution and other issues that sparked the interest, or hand-wringing, of government IT executives in 2007.

Hot: Government 2.0
Open, informal and unguarded — those adjectives don’t typically describe the government’s communication style, and that’s why agencies’ use of four-letter words like blog and wiki caught so many people’s attention this year. From the State Department’s Diplopedia wiki to the intelligence community’s Intellipedia, more feds are using online collaborative tools. State, for which communicating with U.S. citizens has not been a priority, started a public blog called Dipnote. Officials introduced it as a space “for participants to discuss important foreign policy issues with senior department officials.”

NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention established significant presences in the virtual world Second Life, and several agency executives started blogs. In October, the General Services Administration launched GovGab,where five government managers share information they think is useful to people.

Beyond making communication more personal, those new informal conversational tools require government officials to alter how they view communication and information in general. Press-release language on a blog sounds contrived, and access controls on a wiki are self-defeating.

Bev Godwin, director of GSA’s USA.gov, said the agency created GovGab to reach new audiences, put a human face on government, and start a conversation between the government and the public. Blogging “is a lot about trust,” she said.

— Ben Bain

Not hot: WiMax
Somewhere between the convenience of Wi-Fi hot spots and the greater reach but slower speed of cellular networks lies an opportunity for a new type of wireless data service.

A leading contender for filling that gap was WiMax, short for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access. WiMax is based on 802.16 wireless standards developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Using WiMax’s 30-mile range and support for stationary and mobile users, the government could theoretically blanket entire cities, bases or campuses with high-speed network access.

The Defense Department has been testing WiMax gear in various locations, including Iraq.

Grand Rapids, Mich., has contracted with Clearwire and Brownsville, Texas, with IBM to build municipal WiMax networks. Intel promised to offer Centrino laptop PC processors with built-in WiMax modems in 2008. And most ambitiously, Sprint Nextel pledged to start deploying a nationwide WiMax service in the next several years.

Despite a promising start, WiMax is finishing the year under some storm clouds.

No new municipal WiMax deployments have been announced, and after publicizing plans to work together on WiMax deployments, Sprint Nextel and Clearwire canceled their plans, citing unresolved technical and business challenges.

That retreat and vacancies in key executive positions at Sprint Nextel have industry observers wondering whether the company will follow through on its plan to build a nationwide WiMax netw rk, said Roberta Wiggins, a research fellow at the Yankee Group.

WiMax “is finishing the year with much greater uncertainty than when it began,” Wiggins said. WiMax will not go away, especially overseas, she added, but if Sprint backs away from its plans, it would deal a blow to the technology’s development in the United States.

— John Zyskowski

Hot: Green IT
Green IT acquired a higher profile as people started paying attention to the energy-consuming aspects of computing.

That was certainly the case in the high-performance scientific-computing sector.

In November, the publishers of the Top 500 list of the world’s most powerful supercomputers issued the inaugural Green 500 — a ranking of the world’s most energy-efficient supercomputers. Experts compared systems on a megaflops-per-watt basis, a megaflop being 1 million floating-point operations/sec.

The Energy Department’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory ranked fifth on the Green 500 list for the performance of its IBM Blue Gene/P, which emerged as the highest-ranked supercomputer in the U.S. public sector.

Buddy Bland, project director at DOE’s Leadership Computing Facility at Oak Ridge, noted the increased importance of green IT.

“We’re seeing the cost of power become a substantial life cycle cost for running these very large computers,” he said.

Blue Gene is designed to minimize energy consumption. The system lowers power requirements — and total cost of ownership — while still delivering substantial computing cycles, Bland said.

Blue Gene uses less electricity compared with other commercially available machines, according to IBM.

Bland said the DOE facility works with the manufacturers of other systems the lab uses to determine how it can meet energy-saving targets and fulfill its mission.

Energy consumption has been a concern in supercomputing circles for the past five years, Bland said, but that awareness became more widespread in the past year.

“This year has maybe been the first year that the general public has started to understand how much power computers are using,” he said.

— John Moore

Not hot: Open-document standards
Controversy can make a technology hot. It can also freeze it in its tracks, especially if the debate becomes mired in technical minutiae, bureaucratic wrangling and corporate obfuscation.

All of that happened in the battle over open-document standards. At the beginning of the year, Massachusetts seemed poised to lead the way by adopting Open- Document Format (ODF) as the official standard for sharing and archiving the state’s electronic records. ODF is a publicly available file standard based on Extensible Markup Language and backed by Google, IBM, Sun Microsystems, and other corporate and open-source interests. Several other states proposed legislation with aims similar to those of Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, Microsoft’s alternative to ODF, Office Open XML, achieved standards status from the computer manufacturer association ECMA International.

The company also submitted OOXML to the International Organization for Standardization, seeking the same international status that ODF had.

The dustup is leading many government IT executives to refrain from choosing a standard. “It’s clearly created a lot of confusion, and to put it in the words of some government enterprise architects I’ve spoken to, it’s been a distraction,” said Kyle McNabb, a principal analyst at Forrester Research who covers desktop PC productivity tools. “In particular, it’s been viewed as one vendor against another, and whe is the interest of the end user?” By summer, Massachusetts IT officials had retreated from their exclusive endorsement of ODF. They said OOXML would also be accepted because, like ODF, it is based on XML. Other states’ legislative efforts to mandate ODF failed to advance — some said because of lobbying pressure from Microsoft.

In September, ISO members narrowly rejected Microsoft’s effort to fast-track OOXML for approval in a vote that some open-source organizations charged was close only because of questionable actions by Microsoft and its supporters.

For their part, Microsoft officials said they were optimistic they could address technical issues raised during the ISO review process and win the group’s approval for OOXML next March.

Clearly, this is one fight that is far from over.

— John Zyskowski 

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