2008 Watch List: Power, servers, nets: Efficiency is in

Emerging technologies help agencies get a better grip on IT management and utilization

Get going already!

Wanting to avoid unproven new technology is understandable. But even the most risk-averse people should have an eye on these technologies.

Enterprise resource planning

ERP installations were all the rage a few years ago — and, in some cases, the object of rage.

But by now, most agencies should have something in place or at least find themselves well into the implementation phase. Thom Rubel, practice director of government programs at IDC Government Insights, said the next challenge for ERP adopters is to get beyond the financial and HR pieces and into business analytics and supply chain management.

Encrypting data at rest

Full-disk encryption software for PCs has existed for years and now encryption technology is baked into some hard drives. At the enterprise level, encryption is available via enterprise backup software and specialized appliances. At the device level, some tape and disk drives offer built-in encryption.

Voice over IP

Unified communications and infrastructure consolidation are increasingly attractive destinations.

But to get there, agencies must develop an IP telephony strategy.

— John Moore

The upcoming year will feature technologies on the fast track. Green information technology is bursting on the scene, promising to bring enormous cost savings and electricity conservation to energy-hogging data centers.

Virtualization and unified communication, although not new, appear poised for a big year in terms of market penetration.

In security, interest is growing in network access control, but the varied solutions make for a complex environment.

The course of technology adoption never did run smoothly. Here are more details about which technologies will be big in 2008, where they can make a difference, and how to get in on the action.

Technology: Green data centers
Until recently, the desktop was the main focus of green IT initiatives. However, the spotlight will shine squarely on the data center in 2008.

“Most of the focus before 2006 was on power consumption and e-waste associated with PCs,” said Richard Hodges, principal at GreenIT, which offers design, management and education services to public- and private-sector customers. “In the last two years, there has been a significant increase in interest in data center energy use, and a new awareness” greenhouse gas emissions caused by IT electricity use.

The greening of the data center focuses on energy efficiency, which reduces an organization’s carbon emissions while lowering its operational costs.

Room for energy improvement abounds in top-end computing. Energy consumption has become a concern in the scientific and high-performance sector, where supercomputing clusters running Advanced Micro Devices and Intel microprocessors generate significant power demands.

“Both of these companies understand that power consumption is one of their most difficult problems to solve,” said Buddy Bland, project director of the Energy Department’s Leadership Computing Facility at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Oak Ridge’s IBM Blue Gene/P system ranked fifth on the recently published Green500 list of the world’s most energy-efficient supercomputers.

The less exotic data centers are also packing more computing power, boosting energy usage in the process. Thom Rubel, practice director of government programs at IDC Government Insights, pointed to systems consolidation as putting data centers in the energy spotlight.

“These can be big, energy-consuming facilities,” Rubel said.

Area of impact
In some cases, creating green data centers is a matter of government policy. For example, a California executive order requires new and renovated state facilities to be certified under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green-building rating system.

The U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization, administers the LEED certification program, which considers factors such as energy efficiency, water savings and sustainable site development.

Ron Hughes, president of the California Data Center Design Group, said state agency customers are seeking LEED certification for their data centers.

“We are seeing tremendous interest from the public sector,” he said.

In addition to meeting government mandates, a green data center can reduce energy expenses. Energy now represents the second-largest fixed cost in a data center, Hughes said, citing Gartner research. Only the employee salaries rank higher.

At a time when some large data centers generate $1 million monthly electricity bills, even a 5 percent reduction represents a major effect.

“At that level of savings, you get the CFO’s attention,” Hughes said.

Getting in on the action
Meanwhile, green IT demands a comprehensive approach.

“Before doing anything, baseline performance and [ecological impact] data are required,” Hodges said. “Otherwise, there can be no proper measurement and evidence of program benefits.”

In addition to greenhouse gas emission reductions, other environmental considerations include materials used, waste produced and human health effects from IT products, Hodges said.

Concerning power use, steps to reduce consumption include the use of economizers that provide free cooling to a data center.

“If we are designing in an area with cool temperatures at night…we can use the outside air for free cooling,” Hughes said.

An air-side economizer provides such cooling, and water-side economizers provide cooling through evaporation.

The effect of such energy conservation measures varies from facility to facility. Hughes said a data center constructed as a green facility may reduce electricity costs as much as 12 percent compared with a traditional data center.

Established data centers that retrofit green ideas can expect to save about 5 percent, Hughes said. The savings aren’t as dramatic for existing centers because the greening comes through incremental improvements, rather than holistic design.

“You can’t just rip up an electrical distribution system or put in a new cooling system,” Hughes said.

Much of the green IT focus is on electricity, but the practice can also conserve water. The Fannie Mae Urbana Technology Center uses water captured from its evaporator cooling towers to irrigate the facility.

This approach saves thousand of gallons of water each day. In 2005, the facility became the first LEED-certified data center.

“We found we were…not using any of the municipal water supply for irrigation,” said Joseph Lauro, the Urbana Technology Center’s project architect. Lauro is an employee of Gensler, a firm that specializes in sustainable design strategies.

Technology: Virtualization
Virtualization — packaged as loadable software or firmware built into a system — promises to squeeze greater efficiency out of the IT infrastructure.

The server version of this technology carves out multiple partitions in a single computer, creating virtual servers or virtual machines. Each virtual environment may run its own operating system and applications, which gives IT departments the ability to run applications on fewer servers.

Virtualization has made some headway in the government sector, but industry executives believe the trend will intensify this year.

Damon Brown, chief technical officer at Govplace, expects at least three-quarters of his customers to go into production with virtualization this year. Last year, about 25 percent of Govplace’s customer base deployed virtual machines, he said.

Area of effect
Server virtualization often surfaces as a consolidation tool, said Stan Tyliszczak, senior director of technology integration at General Dynamics Information Technology’s Chief Technology Office.

Virtualization’s hardware reduction, which can also be achieved by using the technology in conjunction with tightly packed blade server systems, also might lower energy costs, Tyliszczak said. That puts the practice on track with green data center initiatives. Another virtualization benefit is simplified data centers that are easier to replicate in a disaster recovery setting.

Server virtualization, meanwhile, may inspire storage-area network virtualization, which aims to boost the utilization of disk arrays.

Getting in on the action
Agencies that plan to use virtualization first need a thorough understanding of how the technology will effect their environment, said Vic Berger, a technologist at CDW Go ernment.

He suggested that customers attend classes or contract for on-site professional services to get up to speed. In addition, adopters should consider testing virtualization in a lab before introducing it.

“If you don’t put it in a test environment first, you are never going to be able to maximize it,” Berger said.

Technology: Network access control
Network access control (NAC) is a term that covers a range of technologies that keep tabs on devices seeking network access.

Systems administrators can deploy NAC as software or an appliance, or they can make it part of a broader framework or architecture.

NAC solutions check the status of PCs and other devices before they are allowed to connect to a network. This check looks for up-to-date antivirus protection and inspects for malware.

Some NAC solutions also provide identity- based access control, so users, once admitted, can access only the resources the organization deems appropriate.

“Every organization we’ve talked to has an interest in, or an active evaluation of, NAC going on,” said Roy Stephan, director of cybersecurity at Intelligent Decisions.

Area of impact
NAC’s preadmission aspect appeals to organizations with frequent guests — contractors, for instance — who bring their own laptop PCs and could potentially spread malware infections. NAC products scan machines and quarantine those that fail to pass muster.

Officials at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina are using ConSentry Network’s NAC solution to lock out students at the network switch level if the students’ computers are infected with a virus.

The product also provides insight into students’ network activities.

“The posture check is nice, but the big thing is the visibility,” said Joseph Vittorelli, the university’s director of systems and infrastructure. “We can see what’s going on in our network and respond to it appropriately.”

Getting in on the action
When it comes to NAC, some industry executives are wary of an end-to-end deployment.

An all-or-nothing approach may result in a tremendous infrastructure investment, said George Janz, wide-area network manager at General Dynamics Information Technology.

He noted that solutions that seek to span the entire enterprise require “a high degree of homogeneity in the lower-level layers of networks.” However, this vision is hard to achieve in mixed environments, he said.

A better approach is to break the network into pieces, identify the critical infrastructure elements needing protection, and put the appropriate access measures in place to get the job done, Janz said.

Technology: Unified communications
Unified communications pulls together telephony, messaging, videoconferencing and other business tools within a single system, with IP as the common denominator.

Lately, collaboration products such as Web conferencing also are merging into the unified fold.

Market Connections polled federal IT managers on unified communications adoption last year and found momentum building among agencies.

“We will have well more than half either in implementation or fully implemented in the next 18 months,” said Aaron Heffron, vice president at Market Connections.

Area of impact
Voice-over-IP telephony sparked the converged communications concept, in which voice communication joined data on IP networks. Unified communications take business communications to the next level, said General Dynamics’ Tyliszczak.

But where converged communications provided infrastructure benefits, unified communications brings productivity gains.

For example, in a unified environment, users can attach a voice mail message to an e-mail message and forward it.

“Unified communications is ultimately where you get the greater productivity benefits,” Tyliszczak said.

The unified approach — through integration and built-in redundancy — also provides mission-critical reliability and security, Heffron said.

Getting in on the action
Consulting with peers may be one way to get started in this technology. Agencies interested in deploying unified communications are talking to early adopters for advice, Heffron said.

“There is a lot of reaching out to other agencies to try to identify what others within the federal government space are already doing and trying to not reinvent the wheel,” he said 

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