A second big push

Less than a year after fledgling "push" technology was billed by some as the hottest way to untangle the massive maze of information on the World Wide Web since the browser, some push vendors are refining their products to appease users annoyed by a deluge of information that can devour network bandwidth.

And while some vendors, such as FreeLoader Inc. and IFusion Com Corp., have dropped out of the market altogether, the surviving players have been busily marketing advanced push applications to federal agencies eager to purchase software that can automatically deliver human resources information, software updates and other customized data to select users.

In its most basic application, push technology is designed to eliminate the need for the user to scour the Web to "pull" specific information. Push software automatically delivers data to the user via the user's browser or e-mail based on pre-established criteria.

Alexis DePlanque, senior research analyst with Meta Group Inc., said because the filtering mechanisms used by many push technology vendors were poor, the push technology market slowed since its initial surge last year.

"It's deflated," DePlanque said. "A lot of people were tire-kicking, and they kicked the tires and said, 'Nope, don't want to buy it.' Nobody wants to pay $50,000 for this stuff; people would pay an extra $20 per desktop."

Refining the Technology

BackWeb Technologies, one of the powerhouse push technology vendors that has garnered several federal government customers, has geared its products to avoid the pesky advertisements and bandwidth problems that have plagued other vendors, according to Julie Martin, BackWeb's director of product marketing.

BackWeb, San Jose, Calif., structured its push technology product business model so that users could purchase the company's server product and create their own channels, which would be void of the advertisements that accompany much of the general Web site information that is pushed to users.

The company's server products also feature a "polite agent" feature, which delivers pushed information when it senses that Internet lines are idle, thus saving bandwidth, Martin said. In addition, a bandwidth protector staggers pushed information over time instead of sending large files all at once.

"We definitely are paying attention to network usage and making sure our technology is very friendly," Martin said. "Because of this ability to send larger files without having a persistent connection, it makes it very easy for people to get information at their desktops."

Advanced Federal Applications

The federal market for push technology— which is ripe for products that allow bulk electronic distribution of targeted information because of the large number of employees and customers of many federal agencies— already is brimming with advanced applications using traditional push models.

Push technology pioneer PointCast Inc. last year partnered with BTG Inc. to market a customized federal content-delivery system that now offers eight channels, including a Defense Department channel, a legislative channel, a procurement channel and a general civilian agency channel.

Eight months later, the system, called Government Insider, now broadcasts to 30,000 subscribers with .gov or .mil domain names, and the company expects another 40,000 to 50,000 .gov and .mil subscribers of PointCast's general content-delivery system to convert to Government Insider, said Paul Collins, a vice president at BTG until this month.

While Government Insider primarily is being used for information dissemination by agencies such as NASA and the Energy Department, both of which use the service to push agency-specific information to their employees, Collins said many agencies have expressed interest in using the technology to support actual transactions, such as automatic procurement updates in electronic commerce applications.

"The ability to post their information and get it out quickly and efficiently to people in government— [that] is really attractive," Collins said.

DOE is working with BTG to develop a prototype model that would allow DOE users to subscribe through the department's intranet to specific types of information, such as one defined area of energy research, said Mike Frame, DOE's deputy director of information systems development.

The push technology is also an attractive feature for creating a common interface to distribute both administrative information and research and development data, he said.

"We saw this as a way to broaden out what we're doing in research...and to tie it in with some of the things coming out of headquarters," Frame said.

The Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs use anti-virus products integrated with BackWeb's push technology to automatically send anti-virus software updates, Martin said.

In addition, the National Institutes of Health is using BackWeb products to deliver staff changes and policy updates, while the Army is using BackWeb technology to push requests for proposals to vendors.

The U.S. Postal Service has launched a large-scale push technology project, called Postal Vision, and the agency is poised to take its use of the technology to an even higher level. Postal Vision is a video content-delivery system based on technology from Target Vision, Rochester, N.Y. The system, which so far has been installed in 410 sites nationwide, delivers both general and customized Postal news content to TV monitors in employee break rooms and cafeterias via modem and phone lines, said Margot Myers, USPS' manager of employee communications and creative services.

Just last month, Myers said, USPS used Postal Vision to ensure that employees had the opportunity to learn of the resignation of Postmaster General Marvin Runyon before the news was publicized in the media.

USPS has begun to connect each of these sites to its agency intranet so that the updates will be delivered to employees via the network instead of through costly phone and modem lines, thus bringing a significant cost savings. In addition, USPS soon will begin testing the delivery of content directly to employee desktops.

"There's so much information coming to employees from so many different places," Myers said. "It's important for us to use push technology to make sure the things we want them to see are seen. If it's a hassle for them to go and get it...a lot of them would never see it."

Some Resistance

Not all agencies, however, have warmly embraced having employees download push technology. The Air Force in October banned the use of push technology products from PointCast, Microsoft Corp., Netscape Communications Corp., BackWeb and others while officials evaluate possible security risks of current and future versions of the products.

"When you've got a system that automatically can update at your computer, you always have to be concerned about what else could be introduced," said Air Force spokeswoman Maj. Kerry Humphrey. "We take pretty seriously any kind of threat."

Officials do "realize the value" of the technology and do plan to approve the use of push products in the future, she said. The security evaluation of push technology products by the Air Force Communications Agency at the Pentagon is expected to be completed this month.

Craig Beilinson, Microsoft's product manager for the company's Internet Explorer browser, said network administrators can disable any piece of technology, including Microsoft's push mechanism, based upon where users are browsing on the Web. For example, if an administrator fears a user may be at risk from rogue Java applets, all applets can be restricted from accessing a system through the browser.

"We don't think [push technology is] any worse or any better than browsing the Web," Beilinson said.

Officials at NIH are interested in technology that will automatically push software updates to user desktops, said Tim Barnes, NIH's chief of the intramural technical systems branch.

NIH is using a beta version of CyberMedia Support Server from Santa Monica, Calif.-based CyberMedia to repair automatically common PC problems, such as bad or missing drivers, crashes, unstable applications or disconnected shortcuts.

Based on user group profiles, such as those specific to accounting or human resources users, the product scans a desktop when users boot up and pushes solutions to correct these common problems, Barnes said.

Barnes said CyberMedia plans future versions of the server that automatically would push software update programs to desktops, and he said NIH would be interested in expanding its use of that product to its entire network.

Pushing the Alternatives

As another alternative to traditional content-delivery push technology, some agencies are beginning to use Internet Protocol multicasting technology to transmit information.

Rather than replicating data to push out to multiple users individually, multicasting enables a content server to send a single stream of traffic to any number of clients, with information being replicated in the network and not at the server. The technology also allows the replication of information to distributed servers, where it can be distributed to local users quickly and reliably.

Michael Goulde, an analyst with Boston-based Patricia Seybold Group, describes multicasting as the most efficient push technology-enabling infrastructure to reap the benefits of push features because it conserves bandwidth.

The Agency of International Development is ramping up this month to begin using client/server products from Concord, Mass.-based Starburst Communications Inc. to send distributed software and Unix operating system patches as well as weekly updates simultaneously to its 40 overseas offices instead of establishing separate file transfer protocol (FTP) sessions for each transmission.

This process now requires a combined total of 30 to 40 contractor hours each week, said Kenneth Roko, AID's telecommunications manager. AID officials have determined that multicasting will reduce the agency's consumption of man-hours and bandwidth by 80 percent, he said.

Starburst's product, which is based upon a multicast FTP, breaks files into blocks and frames during transmission and sends files across a network to each recipient simultaneously.

Roko said the agency's new front-end for multicasting will allow the enterprise network management personnel to monitor the multicasting activity, report on the performance of these activities on a regular basis and schedule multicasting sessions in sync with scheduled maintenance downtime. It also will make it possible to reinitiate multicasting sessions where problems were experienced due to unanticipated network and/or platform outages.

"Multicasting is but one tool in the expanding role of IP networks and Web-based information processing," Roko said. "However, it will be a tool to help better utilize the installed network infrastructure and minimize overhead [than] with more traditional methods of transferring digital content."

Pushing the Envelope

Despite some initial growing pains in the market following the early frenzy of push technology's introduction, federal agencies clearly have warmed to the technology, with many "pushing" the envelope to use the technology for applications that far surpass the delivery of stock quotes and sports scores.

Just last month, BTG announced that it had received from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency a contract that would use the latest concepts in push technology and visual presentation techniques to give military commanders the most informative view of the battlefield.

Rob Kelly, BTG's vice president in charge of the company's battlefield awareness work, said the company is exploring how the technology can be used to allow a soldier on the battlefield to register to receive automatically a certain type of updated information.

"The Department of Defense realizes that the problem is not that the commander lacks sufficient data but that this data needs to be presented as useful information to the decision-makers," Kelly said.

* * * * *

AT A GLANCE

Status: Initial fervor with push technology has cooled somewhat, with some potential customers choosing not to deploy push applications.

Issues: Traditional push products can consume large amounts of bandwidth, leading some agencies to reconsider how they use the technology. Some agencies also are concerned about security risks.

Outlook: Very good. Industry vendors have begun developing a new generation of products that address the concerns that have arisen.

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