Tech Briefing


John Zyskowski

Tech Briefing

By John Zyskowski

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Which cloud services are you eyeing?

E-mail is the hands-down winner for the most popular high profile cloud application that government agencies are moving to first. The General Services Administration, Agriculture Department, Interior Department, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, California and Wyoming, and New York City and Los Angeles are among the government entities and jurisdictions that have already moved or will move their internally hosted electronic messaging systems to a commercial cloud e-mail service.

Experts whom I talked to for a story on cloud adoption trends expect this pattern to continue, as e-mail represents a prime opportunity for tapping the benefits of a commercial cloud service.

Most agencies wrestle with managing multiple legacy e-mail systems that are usually expensive to maintain and incompatible with one another. That situation affects the productivity of the IT department and agency end users. Moving to a single enterprise-wide e-mail system makes a lot of sense. And the commercial cloud providers are adequately dealing with security and reliability concerns to enable government to make the move.

So what do you think the next hot cloud application will be? What cloud services is your agency most interested in adopting first and why? You can post your comments below.

Also, which types of cloud services do you think should be the easiest to adopt, relatively speaking? Alternatively, which cloud services will provide the most benefits or biggest payback to your agency, even though they may not be the easiest or quickest to adopt?

Shawn McCarthy, research director at IDC Government Insights, expects some other software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications to follow e-mail as lead targets for early cloud adoption. The universality of certain applications across government creates an opportunity for cloud vendors to create standard services that can meet most agencies’ needs, he said.

Like e-mail, human resources systems, document management and certain types of financial transactions all tend to be common functions that can be standardized and potentially moved to a more cost-effective cloud model, McCarthy said.

In the category of infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS), he said cloud storage services show strong early promise.

But even these applications are not slam dunks for the cloud at every agency. For example, existing in-house e-mail systems are sometimes integrated with other applications such as case management, contact management or systems that track legal document delivery. That kind of integration can make a move to the cloud more complicated, McCarthy said.

Other factors related to the different characteristics of government agency’s also influence whether they use the cloud and which style of cloud applications they choose, said Greg Potter, a research analyst at In-Stat and author of a recent report about the commercial or public cloud market.

According to his research, small cities and counties, just like small businesses, lead in the adoption of public cloud services, because these organizations traditionally outsource their IT needs more often than larger government enterprises.

Also, SaaS accounts for more than half of the $130 million government spent on public cloud services in 2010, Potter found. Government spending on IaaS in 2010 was roughly $40 million and only $18 million for platform-as-a-service. He estimates the government spending on public cloud services will increase to $275 million by 2014.

Potter is starting some research on private clouds, in which organizations build their own cloud-based services for internal use. This approach eliminates the data security and control concerns many organizations have about using commercial public cloud services.

Potter expects to find that government spending on private clouds will be significantly higher than that on public cloud services. Moreover, he expects the profile of who’s spending most on private clouds to flip, whereby the majority of that spending will be by large- and medium-sized government entities, those who traditionally have had the resources to take care of their own IT needs.

Posted on Feb 09, 2011 at 7:27 PM0 comments


Why can’t I check e-mail on my iPhone?

Mobile devices like smartphones and tablet computers are the hottest of the hot gadgets these days. In the case of smart phones, at least, many agencies dole them out to some employees as standard-issue equipment for voice and mobile messaging needs. But in other cases, government employees are using their own personal devices, from Android smartphones to Apple iPads, to check in and stay on top of their office chores.

However it is that these devices get into workers’ hands, this “consumerization of IT,” as it’s called, has many agency chief information on notice. They understand that the devices are going to reshape how government work gets done, but they also know that the gadgets pose new management and security challenges that have to be addressed.

What are your agency’s policies about smartphones and handheld computing devices? Are there certain devices that your agency issues and supports? Are there others that they don’t but you wished they did?

Also, what kind of workplace role do you see these devices playing? And what will be the biggest stumbling blocks in the way of this happening?

Please share your comments below.

Posted on Nov 09, 2010 at 7:27 PM3 comments


Crazy prediction, or crazy serious?

IT has often been a transformative -- even revolutionary – force on government, business and society, yet the clues that can foreshadow these seismic shifts are often buried in the bland market reports that are the staples of the tech industry, like the surging sales of one type of microprocessor, or a certain software application becoming more popular at the expense of another.

But every so often industry analysts and observers lay out a vision of the future that absolutely grabs our attention. Below are six such predictions and estimations from the past year. They conjure a slice of reality that is significantly different from the one we live and work in today.

What’s your take on these bold prognostications? Are they the self-interested ruminations of somebody looking for some attention? Or do they portray a future that you and your colleagues are preparing for? And how so? Do these predictions even apply to government?

You can share your thoughts by using the “Comment” button below. Your comments will appear online and in a special year-end print issue that we will publish in December. Please include your e-mail address in the form so that we can follow up with you directly if we have any questions. We will not post your e-mail address publicly.

  1. One out of five businesses will own no IT assets at all by 2012, predict Gartner analysts. They say several interrelated trends are driving the movement toward decreased IT hardware assets, such as virtualization, cloud-enabled services, and employees running personal desktops and notebook systems on enterprise networks.
  2. Seventy-five percent or more of jobs in stand-alone IT departments will go away by 2015, according to the Corporate Executive Board. Some of the responsibilities of the lost jobs will have moved to external providers or have migrated to mission-focused roles in other departments.
  3. One trillion devices will be connected to the Internet by 2013, said Cisco Chief Technology Officer Padma Warrior during a conference keynote speech earlier this year. Added to the current base of about 35 billion devices will be an explosion in remote sensors and new mobile devices, creating huge opportunities for new applications.
  4. The government can save $1 trillion in 10 years by harnessing certain proven technologies, asserts the Technology CEO Council. The feds can achieve these savings by consolidating data centers and implementing other IT efficiency measures, using analytic software to root out fraud in spending and entitlement programs, and streamlining government procurement.
  5. One in four personal computing devices sold will be tablets by 2015, predicts Forrester analysts.
  6. Data will grow by 800 percent in the next 5 years, according to Gartner analysts. Eighty percent of that will be the unstructured variety, like text and media files, that can be the most challenging kind to manage and leverage.

Posted on Nov 02, 2010 at 7:27 PM6 comments


7 BlackBerry tricks from the pros (but what's missing?)

A BlackBerry smart phone is standard-issue equipment for most government executives these days, ensuring that workplace issues – and pressures – are practically never more than an arm’s length away. However, too often people feel like the BlackBerry ends up taking over their life, so it’s important to make the technology work for you, instead of the other way around.

To this end, we asked a few executive coaches for their best tips for making the most of using a BlackBerry. Their suggestions follow.

Do you have any favorite BlackBerry tricks that help you manage the device or your time better? You can share those ideas with other readers by using the comments below. Please include your e-mail address in the form so that we can follow up with you directly if we have any questions. We will not post your e-mail address publicly.

1. Get to know some apps

Ever tried to access Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn from your BlackBerry Web browser and had difficulty reading or navigating the pages? If so, go to Blackberry App World and download the (mostly) free apps that enable you to more easily interact with these popular services, suggests Marsha Egan, a business leader coach and author of “Inbox Detox.” As an example, with the Twitter app a star appears on the home page when there is a new mention, just like a star appears when you have new e-mail messages. New apps are being created each day, and searching the Internet for top BlackBerry apps will keep you current and more efficient.

2. Customize the left-side key

That button on the left side of the BlackBerry is assigned out of the box to voice-activated dialing, which Fiona Forrest, an executive coach with Strategic Learning Solutions, finds a difficult feature to use. Instead, she advises using the button to bring up the calendar or address book. Directions for reassigning one of these functions to the button, which is called the left-side convenience key, vary depending on your carrier, so check for your specific model. Once reassigned, you can talk on the phone and easily check your calendar at the same time.

3. Set electronic boundaries

Productivity and efficiency involves setting boundaries, and you can use one of the BlackBerry’s battery saving features to make it easier to set those boundaries, said Egan. Just because the BlackBerry allows you to be connected 24/7 doesn't mean you should. You can set your device to automatically shut down at specific times and turn itself back on. To do so, go to your device's icon screen and click the Options icon. Then click Auto On/Off, select whether settings should apply to weekdays, weekends or both, and choose stop and start times.

4. Cut back the keystrokes

If there are words you type often, you can add shortcuts to them in the BlackBerry’s dictionary with Autotext under Options, recommends Forrest. She has added all the days of the week and the names of people she often refers to in her e-mail. This can save a lot of typing. You can also use this feature to correct common spelling mistakes you might make. She also says “no” to the Confirm Delete under the Options menu. That way deleting a message takes only one keystroke, saving hundreds of keystrokes a day for heavy e-mail users.

5. Save on directory assistance

Cell phone companies charge $1 or more for directory assistance calls, a fee that can add up quickly for an organization filled with people used to dialing 411 when such requests were free. If you’re willing to listen to a few second advertisement when you call, you can use a free directory assistance service by dialing 800-FREE-411, or 800-373-3411, said Forrest. Google also offers a free service at 800-GOOG-411 or 800-466-4411.

6. Beat the traffic

Time spent behind the wheel caught in traffic is time lost for work purposes. You can steer clear of backups by using the mobile Web version of Traffic.com’s real-time traffic alert system, suggested Allan Tsang, an executive coach and business consultant. First visit Traffic.com to register for free. Select the highways you will be using every day and the approximate time. The service will then send automatic e-mail alerts to your BlackBerry if there are backups within your route and time frame.

7. Do it faster with shortcuts

There are many built in shortcuts for typing and navigating message lists on the BlackBerry, so you’ll probably want to get familiar with at least some of them, said Forrest. Some shortcuts vary with different models, so check your mode’s manual. Here are some of the ones Forrest tells her clients about.

When typing, press:

* The space bar twice to insert a period and capitalize the next letter automatically.
* Hold a letter key to capitalize that letter.
* The alt key and a character key to type the alternate character on a key.
* A number key to type that number in a number field (no need to press the alt key).
* And hold the alt key and a number key to type a number in a text field.

When navigating a message list, press:

* The shift key and the space bar to move up a screen.
* The space key to move down a screen.
* T to move to the top of a message list.
* B to move to the bottom of a list.
* N to move to the next date.
* P to move to the previous date.
* U to move to the next unopened item.
* J to move to the next related message.
* K to move to the previous related message.
* C to compose a new e-mail message.

Posted on Sep 13, 2010 at 7:27 PM2 comments


Cloud might let users bypass IT -- for a while

Undoubtedly the greatest bit of hype around the predicted rise of cloud computing is that the role of the CIO and the IT department is going to be diminished as end users bypass internal IT and go directly out to the cloud for what they need.

Want to start using that cool new software-as-a-service Web app to share documents among your team and track your project? Forget those killjoys in the IT department and all their tiresome “procedures.” You can sign up for the cloud app from your desk and start using it right away without IT ever even knowing about it. Hey, they’d probably thank you for it if they knew because it’s less work for them, a veritable win-win.

That is until the cloud provider goes out of business one day, and you find out your people can’t get access to all those great documents and ideas and data they had stored in the now-shuttered provider’s servers. Or until the group of go-getters discover that the Web app stopped working for their co-conspirators in the St. Louis office because of some conflict with that location’s new server settings.

That’s when it’s time for the call of shame: “Hello internal IT department, we’ve got a problem. We need your help.”

It’s for reasons like these that agency IT departments will still need to be fully engaged with the process of making sure end users have the IT resources they need to do their jobs. What will change as cloud computing gets more popular is where those resources are coming from, and that will mean a change for IT department’s role, not the reduction or elimination of it.

The generic name for what the IT department will need to be really good at is “IT service management.” Though this philosophy has been around for decades, even when IT designed, built and ran virtually all the systems its end users needed, it’s going to take on far more importance in the age of cloud-style outsourcing.

I wrote in a recent story about how the use of one particular method for practicing IT service management called the Information Technology Infrastructure Library, or ITIL, is changing with the advent of the cloud.

As always, I came across a lot of good information and the people I interviewed made some great points that I didn’t have room enough to include in the story. Here is some of that information.

New IT skills needed in age of cloud

Randy Steinberg, a national specialist leader at Deloitte Consulting and expert in IT service management, observes that many organizations are starting to realize that cloud computing will change the skills they need in their internal IT department.

“The role of IT is now becoming more of a service integrator,” Steinberg said. “You can see evidence of this in the industry already – some of the fastest growing jobs are in IT Service Management, sourcing experts, service definition skills and procurement. The issue of service catalog/portfolio for example, was almost non-existent 3 years ago – now almost every company I speak with is doing something with that in some form or other.”

Another source for my story, Rob England, a consultant who writes a blog about IT service management called the IT Skeptic, also noted how the interface between an internal IT department and the rest of the organization will change as cloud takes off.

“One aspect that doesn't get enough attention is that service desk becomes more important not less,” England said. “Who knows how my company locally archives Gmail? Who knows the policy and peculiarities of how we use SalesForce? Somebody needs to present a cohesive face of Information to the users, and that is the Service Desk.”

“That Service Desk probably won't be an IT Service Desk though - it will be an organizational Service Desk,” he continued. “Carr's “IT Doesn't Matter” is coming true - the cloud will help break down the isolation of IT as a cultish specialty and place Information as just another department.”

As both Steinberg and England pointed out, ITIL is just one of the IT service management disciplines and frameworks that organizations can and probably should use as they increase their use of cloud computing. Here are some of the others (not in order of importance):

  • eSourcing Capability Model (eSCM) – built from an outsourcing perspective;

  • Control Objectives for Information and related Technology (COBIT) – this provides other aspects of IT management and governance not covered by ITIL and its ilk.

  • ISO 38500 – helps formalize governance.

  • Universal Service Management Body of Knowledge (USMBOK) – guidance for non-IT-centric service management.

Dearth of research on ITIL use

We know from our reporting at FCW and Government Computer News that ITIL is quite popular around government. We found many ITIL followers when we first covered it in 2006 in the story “Simple advice, big payoff,” and then plenty more in the later stories “ITIL given a government spin” and “ITIL emerges as new sheriff of IT management.”

Even though one can see plenty of anecdotal evidence of ITIL uptake, it turns out that good research about ITIL adoption rates and return on investment are hard to come by.

The IT service management vendor Hornbill has a recent user survey about ITIL use that has some interesting data about the areas of ITIL that current adopters are most interested in.

Something to watch for will be an IT service management user survey that Forrester Research is doing with the membership of the IT Service Management Forum USA.

Finally, here are the results of an informal survey on ITIL adoption done in 2008 by James Phelps of the University of Wisconsin.

Posted on Aug 06, 2010 at 7:27 PM3 comments


More thoughts about CIOs and agile software development

In putting together a recent print story about CIOs co-opting agile software development techniques as a way to accelerate their ability in the executive suite to evaluate, acquire and deploy new technologies, I came across more information and good points than I could fit in the original print story.

Two of the more valuable points I had to leave out were made by Richard Cheng, a managing consultant who leads the agile practice at Excella Consulting. They both relate to how the agile mindset differs from traditional decision and project management thinking. Those differences lie at the heart of what makes agile such a powerful concept and so tricky to embrace in government.

The first point underscores how a fundamental part of the agile approach is ordering activities by value. Instead of treating all features of a new system or all facets of an IT decision as equals, agile prioritizes tackling the highest value tasks first. This approach has a very convenient benefit in the government space.

“By focusing on the most important, if the funding gets cut or if you have to deploy early, you have the highest priority items already done,” Cheng said. “In the old system, if you cut a two-year project two-thirds of the way through, you may have a big stack of documents and very little else.”

The other point relates to failure, and the toxic nature of that term in government. With agile, “it is important to identity critical failure versus exploratory failure,” Cheng said. “Agile pushes for exploratory failure. If you have to fail, fail early. You also need kill points in the process. One of the problems with the way government works today is that killing something becomes synonymous with failure. People become so invested in certain paths that sometimes things that should be killed are continued.”

Cheng elaborates on these issues in an excellent blog he writes called One More Agile Blog. In a recent post he talked about some of the obstacles government executives face in trying to adopt agile practices. The fundamental challenge is that agile is built around delivering results while the government focuses on managing risks. The disparity in approach is also illustrated when looking at the agile manifesto, a simple four sentences penned by some agile software developers to summarize their principles. They are:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation.
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
  • Responding to change over following a plan.

As Cheng points out, “The agile world focuses on the left over the right. However, in today’s world the federal government largely operates on the right side of these statements.”

For a more in depth take on how agile principles can be applied to acquisition processes, it’s worth reading chapter 6 of the Defense Science Board’s March 2009 report on Policies and Procedures for the Acquisition of Information Technology. That report’s findings became a key part of the fiscal 2010 National Defense Authorization, which gives Defense officials a July deadline to come up with new acquisition processes that can deliver IT systems in no more than 18 months by incorporating these agile principles.

Also, the report’s authors outline in the executive summary why using techniques like agile to speed up acquisition is critical.

“The deliberate process through which weapon systems and information technology are acquired by DOD cannot keep pace with the speed at which new capabilities are being introduced in today's information age — and the speed with which potential adversaries can procure, adapt and employ those same capabilities against the United States."

DOD officials do have a bit of a head start on agile than their civilian colleagues. They have talked for at least a decade about using a cousin to agile called spiral development for selected software projects, though the intentions have translated into only a handful of actual successful efforts to date.

But there are some examples of agile in the civilian side. Sanjeev “Sonny” Bhagowalia, chief information officer at the Interior Department, answered federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra’s call to the CIO Council to build Data.gov as a public warehouse of raw government data — and do it as quickly as possible. How to do it? Agile, of course.

FCW senior editor Matthew Weigelt interviewed the CIO when he won a 2010 FCW Fed 100 award for his work. Bhagowalia explained the process they used. Notice how agile works in action:

“We brought in the General Services Administration, the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Management and Budget.

"We gave people a task and made them focus on key deliverables and then kept Vivek in the loop. We had daily 30-minute calls to see how things were going. The communication, focus, commitment and passion that people brought to Data.gov are the reasons for its success.

"The idea was to focus exclusively on a small set of requirements and leverage existing acquisitions, such as GSA contracts. In the government, you’d typically wait a year or two to come up with the perfect set of requirements and then do an acquisition. We decided to think in terms of days and weeks, not months and years.

"We rolled out our first site on May 21, 2009. That was almost within one and a half, two months, which is unheard of in the government.”

Posted on May 20, 2010 at 7:27 PM2 comments


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