IT ideals for a year in utopia

Heightened communication, standards, disaster recovery and virtualization are just a few of the areas IT managers are focused on as they chart their courses for the coming months. Purse strings are still tight, so products and services with big price tags are out. Instead, the themes in 2006 will be about increasing efficiency, tightening security and enhancing communication.

This wish list for 2006 was compiled from discussions with more than a dozen IT managers:

Security inside

Security is a top issue for most IT managers, with some wanting a heightened focus on cybercrime and others bringing in open source tools to augment proprietary security approaches. Others are looking for devices that put security power into the guts of LAN switches to make security deployments easier.

Jeff Crawford, manager of networking and security for public schools in East Grand Rapids, Mich., says vendors that offer multiple, single-purpose hardware devices for network services — whether it’s security, telephony or management — should make the products they offer look more like a Swiss Army knife. He has tested new gear that consolidates WAN routing, firewall, intrusion prevention and intrusion detection features into a single box — 3Com’s X505 network devices.

Crawford says the Swiss Army knife approach undoubtedly will save money. He estimates he can eliminate clusters of gear that cost about US$5,000 with such combination equipment.


With more business being done electronically, the need to share information and services is on the rise. That kind of collaboration requires standards.

The auto industry is pushing for a standards-based method for sharing logistics documents electronically, so manufacturers and governments worldwide can expedite freight quicker and easier. “A lot of products coming out today are built on proprietary ways of doing things,” says Pat Snack, a General Motors executive who heads the e-commerce committee of the Automotive Industry Action Group. “We need things that are standards-based.”

Craig Paul, systems software analyst in the applications technology group at the Kansas University Computer Center in Lawrence, says one of his big wishes for 2006 is to get local, county, state and national disease reporting databases linked and integrated into a disease screening and reporting system, which will require a standard way of inputting and sharing data.

“The head of public health in nearby Kansas City repeatedly has stressed that by far the largest homeland security threat is a pandemic that’s undetected in its early stages,” Paul says. “The problem is twofold: uninsured people won’t visit a doctor until they’re desperately ill; by that time, the disease likely will have already spread.”

Cool servers

While servers are becoming increasingly powerful, end-users are grappling with how to keep these faster-running systems cool. “I can see a push for low-power AMD Opteron systems as cooling and power become more of a factor for an energy-conscious IT world,” says Chris Schwerzler, IT operations manager at online weather service Weather Underground in San Francisco. “For that matter, I can see a growing demand for more efficient yet cost-effective CPUs in general.”

Faster, better disaster recovery

With the Internet keeping business running around the clock, enterprises are under growing pressure to keep operations active 24×7. Boscov’s Department Stores in Reading, Pa., recently moved to a new data centre. Joe Poole, manager of technical support, says he hopes to use the “perfectly functional computer room” that the move left behind to enhance the company’s disaster recovery plan in 2006.

“I would really love to be able to sell a twin disaster recovery site to the business,” Poole says, explaining that he would put another processor and another IBM Shark storage server in the computer room. “Production data could be mirrored synchronously. If we had a disaster, we could be back up in a matter of hours rather than days.”

Virtualize virtually everything

Server virtualization continues to make headway, and analysts say it should really take off this year, especially as IT managers focus on consolidating hardware and boosting efficiencies.

Jim Klein, director of information services and technology at the Saugus Union School District in California, has a lengthy to-do list for 2006, and virtualization is at the top. “We plan to consolidate the data centre at the district office and move to a fully virtualized environment through the use of blades, shared storage and open-source virtualization software [Xen],” he says, adding that by summer he hopes to have eliminated two full racks of servers, “consolidating them into an efficient and scalable platform.”

Better communication

If Jim Hite could have one wish in 2006, it would be better communication from the various departments he serves at Virginia’s Prince William County schools, where he is supervisor of network services and central operations. “When that happens, we have a clearer objective” of what the departments want and need, Hite says. “The better and clearer the other departments’ objectives can be stated, the easier it is for us to respond.”

It can be difficult for departments to express what they’re looking for in terms of IT support, he says, particularly because people easily become intimidated when talking about technology. “It’s an area where a lot of fear from other departments comes about. People don’t want to seem silly or uninformed,” he says.

VoIP for consolidating operations

Bill Homa, senior vice-president and CIO of Hannaford supermarkets in Scarborough, Maine, has spent the past several years adding automation and virtualization technologies to his data centre operations. One of the drivers for the work was server consolidation, because Hannaford was seeing just 10 per cent utilization on Intel servers.

Now that data centre operations are more cost effective, the next step is to look at the hardware in retail locations. “We still have two servers in each store. Our goal is to get down to one and then to no servers needed in stores,” Homa explains.

Homa plans to reach this goal in 2006 by using VoIP. “For us, leveraging voice over IP is going to be big. VoIP is still relatively untouched as an application, not as a technology. Most people with VoIP just do voice, but there is the capability to have a telephone be a terminal, especially for industries with many branch locations,” Homa says.

“It’s a huge opportunity for us to have our phones become more than phones, to be IP devices and terminals. That would have a dramatic effect on the retail industry and help us reduce the servers needed in our store locations.”

A bigger budget

What Rich Cummins, manager of network services with Community Medical Centers in Fresno, Calif., wants in 2006 is five per cent of his budget back. The healthcare company, which manages hospitals, clinics and extended care facilities throughout central California with 6,200 employees, cut back on its IT budget for 2006, which means that a number of important projects will be put off this year.

Cummins has a long list of projects he would do if he could get those dollars back. First, he would hammer out an overall security architecture for his network. The company has a number of point security solutions in place, but Cummins wants to “take a step back and look at the entire enterprise,” he says.

Next he would continue down the path of server and storage virtualization that the company has started on. He would also upgrade his core network infrastructure of Cisco switches and routers, and evaluate the company’s data management strategy, particularly its disaster recovery and business continuity plans. “We’re growing our data at a rate of 200 per cent a year,” he says.

As for management, Cummins says he would look at enterprise monitoring tools that would allow his staff to be more proactive regarding issues with the network.

More staff

Cummins says he also would fill out his staff, adding a project manager and a network engineer, positions that are currently on hold. Joe Poole, manager of technical support at Boscov’s Department Stores in Reading, Pa., says a beefed-up staff is on his wish list, as well.

“Most important, we need to increase our staff,” he says. “I need another systems programmer to begin training this year. Our networking guys are overloaded and the server guys can’t keep up with their projects. We’re way behind on our Linux conversion because of all the distractions.”

A break from regulations

Government regulations such as the Sarbanes Oxley Act are putting pressure on businesses to better manage and secure digital data. Enterprise users just want a break.

“Given all the mandated activities of the past few years and all the new technologies that we’ve had to absorb, the Sarbanes Oxley compliance, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, all those things and the new technologies we’ve put in place to deal with those regulations…. Give us a breather,” says Robert Rosen, president of IBM’s user-group Share.

“You feel like you’re running a million miles an hour and you’re not making any progress, because the stuff is coming in so fast that you don’t have a chance to absorb it.”

“It’s one of those things that gets a nervous chuckle,” Rosen says. “You think it’s funny, but deep down you know it’s absolutely true.

Simplified SOA

Service-oriented architecture (SOA) continues to be the big buzz, as enterprise users strive to integrate Web-based applications. Al Tobey, software infrastructure development architect at Priority Health in Grand Rapids, Mich., says he wants that integration to be easier.

“I hope that SOA becomes the integrator’s dream: vendors supply services and I consume them,” Tobey says. “Right now the hype is for everything as a service — experience makes me think that the right path is somewhere between nothing and everything. I have a number of vendor applications that are providing SOA-labeled services that should allow me to do integration in a much less cumbersome way than before. My wish: that all [independent software vendors] get SOA and I get to reap the benefits regardless of my company’s choice of architecture — Java/JEE, .Net, LAMP, whatever.”

Identity management

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently migrated 1,700 employees to VoIP services as part of a move to a new campus outside Washington, D.C. Eventually 7,700 employees will work from the new campus using a converged IP backbone, so securing access to the network is critical, says Glenn Rogers, deputy CIO of the FDA.

“One area of interest to us is identity management,” Rogers says. “One technology that we’d be interested in looking at is smart card technology with respect to accessing IT services. We’re interested in using smart cards for user log-ins.”

Blogs and streaming content

At Saugus Union School District, the focus will continue this year on empowering its schools by giving teachers access to online content and blogs.

“We plan to continue building our new streaming content catalogue, with the goal of having some sort of content produced and posted by each school, on at least a weekly basis,” says Jim Klein, director of information services and technology at the school district in California. “This means installing additional streaming servers, as well as a good deal of training and coordination with individual school sites while they learn to build digital video content.”

Klein is also planning a social networking Web site, called the SUSD Teacher Community. “The site will be based on an open source LAMP [Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP] application and will allow teachers to keep blogs, create and join interest groups [communities], and share files and lesson planes in a secure way,” Klein says. “It’s something like, only it’s secured by our network systems, rules and access control lists.”

Secure open source

Security is on tap for Mike Nix, director of communications technology for IT Services at the Kansas University Hospital Authority in Kansas City.

Nix’s network supports a teaching hospital with 11,000 managed nodes and 15 WAN sites. His most important technology plans in 2006 involve implementing 802.1x — both wired and wireless — to enable role-based network access and improve security via Cisco’s Network Access Control (NAC) strategy.

Nix also plans to increase the company’s internal intrusion detection systems by augmenting with the freeware IDS tool Snort, as well as utilize his organization’s embedded infrastructure of McAfee Antivirus and ePolicy Orchestrator products, along with Cisco’s Trust Agent. The goal is to make improved security a reality for both wired and wireless users. He also plans to implement private virtual LANs to segregate users from each other, as well as mitigate or eliminate the spread of viruses.

“I have a laundry list of projects, but I view these as the most critical areas for improving our service to customers,” Nix says.

No more patches

Jeff Allred, manager of network services at the Duke University Cancer Center in Durham, N.C., says he’s tired of patching operating systems.

“If I had one thing I would like to see in the coming year, it is for someone — not necessarily Microsoft but they come to mind for sure — to release an operating system where all their time and money was spent perfecting the operating system, as opposed to worrying about new features, new bells and whistles,” he says.

“To have someone actually develop [an operating system] that did not have to be patched every month, that is my wish for the New Year.”

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