What technologies are critical to your company's success?

CTOs share their views the next big thing

The pace of technological change seems to be in a constant state of acceleration.

For government contractors, it is critical to strike a balance between keeping pace and not overreaching for the next hot technology.

In recent years, the answer for many companies has been the elevation of the chief technology officer. He or she must understand resource constraints and customer pain points and grasp the potential of emerging technologies.

We’ve asked a group of CTOs from various government contractors about the important technologies that their companies must master during the next five years.

Some of the answers were expected — cloud computing, mobility and cybersecurity — while other answers illustrated the creativity that many companies are bringing to the market. For instance, social media technologies will play an important role in how the government operates going forward, and it isn’t just about friending your colleagues.

Cloud computing is for real

“This is such a new area that a lot of people are still trying to figure it out,” said Robert Brammer, vice president of advanced technology at Northrop Grumman Information Systems. “It’ll take another three to five years for it to reach any maturity at all.”

Although the cloud can mean different things to different people, Brammer said he has focused on some of the underlying technologies, such as performance issues.

“People have found that in terms of retrieval time and latency, you can’t predict performance from use to use,” he said. “So performance predictability of data management in the cloud is important to us.”

Latency is a growing problem because of the increasing amount of information that is being pushed to cloud applications, said Rick White, CTO of Wyle Information Systems.

“People have an expectation of performance, and if they don’t get that, you’ll have a lot of frustrated users,” White said.

Compliance issues are another concern, Brammer said. “Who is in control of the information? That’s another comment on the lack of maturity of the technology.”

Cloud technologies are important because they will provide the infrastructure for many other cutting-edge technologies.

“We are more interested in software as a service, more on the application side,” White said.

Technologies such as Web 2.0, mashups, the Semantic Web and mobile applications “are all changing the landscape, and they are all essentially cloud-based,” he said. “How does the customer effectively leverage those technologies? They all tie back to software as a service.”

All mobile, all the time

The explosion of mobile technologies is most closely tied to the need for cloud computing.

“The entire world has gone mobile, so the reality is we have a mobile workforce and mobile lifestyle,” said Deborah Dunie, executive vice president and CTO at CACI International.

The best example in the government market is the dismounted soldier. “They are deployed, but they must connect back to the core,” Dunie said. “Mobility is provisioned through the cloud, so this makes for an interesting transformation. How do we architect solutions and mission-specific applications to support mobility in a secure way?”

Dunie and the other CTOs repeatedly pulled their conversations away from the gee-whiz tech talk to practical applications.

“I try to look at it more as a mission capability than as a technology pursuit,” she said.

The mission dictates the type of mobile applications that can be used, so the need to understand the mission is critical, whether it is financial reporting needs or logistics, Dunie said.

“We have clients traveling all over the world that need to understand the status of the ordering or provisioning of the things they need,” she said. “They need to get information fed back into the system quickly.”

She used the example of government aid workers at the site of an earthquake. “If they need to fly back to somewhere to enter information into the system, that really isn’t a timely response,” she said.

Data, data everywhere

One of the biggest challenges facing government agencies is the huge influx of information and how they can use that data to make better decisions.

“Big data — how to manage it, process it and make decisions based on these huge sets of data that are beyond a terabyte — that’s a real stress factor,” Brammer said.

Some of that data comes from important scientific applications that focus on earth sciences and climate change. “Those are major-league datasets,” he said.

Another issue is data fusion, the integration of data from a variety of sources and in a variety of forms. The best example is battlefield data, in which information comes from sensors, radar, satellite imagery, unmanned aerial vehicles and other sources.

“How do you combine all that information and make good decisions?” he asked.

The problem isn’t just the volume of data, said Robert Ames, deputy CTO of IBM Federal. “Data is arriving with tremendous velocity, [and] it has much more variety than our traditional transactional systems have been built to manage,” he said.

IBM is exploring new technologies, such as streaming analytics that capture intelligence from data as it passes through sensors, Ames said.

In addition to its massive volume, data is more frequently appearing in an unstructured format, which means that analytics capabilities are crucial to extracting value from the steady stream of data, he said.

For example, during the past two years, the government has released a lot of information in its push for transparency. “There has been this glut of data, so the challenge is how to use it and put it in a form to make better decisions,” White said.

The need to save money is another important driver for making better use of data.

“Visualization and analytics to show how to save money through increased efficiencies or risk reduction will become increasingly important,” said Gilbert Miller, corporate vice president and CTO of Noblis.

The specter of security

When discussing cloud computing, mobile applications or social media, cybersecurity is an overarching concern.

Cybersecurity covers a lot of different things, White said. “We look at it two ways: You can secure the endpoint by looking at how devices like iPads and iPhones make your network vulnerable,” he said. “Does the data only reside in a secure cloud, or do you secure the connection?”

If the data is in the cloud, White said, he would ask questions such as: How is it protected? Is it segregated? Is it protected from data spilling in or out? Who has access?

Ames said IBM's cybersecurity efforts include areas such as the physical hardware layer, the network and transport layers, and tools to scan applications in development to ensure that they have adequate security capabilities.

“The world of IT is moving with great speed, and as the world is more interconnected than ever, the threat grows exponentially,” Ames said.

The search for the next big thing

Few government contractors have large research and development budgets to create new technologies, so part of a CTO's job is to look for that next big thing.

Step 1 is listening to the customer.

“You have to ask, what is the mission? What is the objective?” Dunie said.

The coolness factor isn’t even on the list. “If I’m working on something my customer doesn’t need, why am I doing it?” White asked.

Another step is working with technology vendors on pilot projects and joint research projects.

Brammer often meets with venture capitalists to learn what they are investing in.

Systems integrators can pull in multiple technologies from different companies to try to develop a solutions.

“We can put their technology through all kinds of stresses to see what works and what doesn’t,” Brammer said.

That’s the fun part of the job.

“You take two or three different technologies and put them together to solve a problem for your customer,” White said. "Those are the a-ha! moments. Otherwise you are just an also-ran.”

About the Author

Nick Wakeman is the editor-in-chief of Washington Technology. Follow him on Twitter: @nick_wakeman.

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