Roundtable: IT Pros Cite Best Tech Bets

By eweek  |  Posted 2002-06-24

Roundtable: IT Pros Cite Best Tech Bets

New technologies are being approached, evaluated and implemented more cautiously than ever: A technology has to show some proven return on investment before most companies will even begin to consider it, a Catch-22 thats slowing the adoption pace for enterprises and the revenue stream for vendors. Several members of eWeeks Corporate Partner advisory board met recently with eWeeks Peter Coffee and Debra Donston to discuss the new (and relatively new) technologies that are capturing CP organizations mind share, if not, at this time, their pocketbooks.

Coffee: Can any of you comment on the degree to which youre now looking for solutions that include tools from vendor A that are intended to manage assets that may come from vendors A, B, C through Q, with no intention of consolidating on one vendors base?

Gunnerson: Thats a good question. All I have for you is a generic answer from Gannett. We try to get the best solution for the problem. At this point, each system is pretty much managed by itself. We havent been looking for more of an umbrella management solution there.

Shaw: Its a similar situation for us. We have multiple environments ... and find ourselves using multiple management platforms to support them because each of the platforms that offers, or promises to offer, some consolidation always leaves out certain parts.

Coffee: What are you looking at in terms of nonproprietary file formats or the use of XML so you have at least a starting point for transcoding content?

Ramos: There seems to be a resurgence in user-controlled standards groups. I mean, go back six months to a year—its almost like users and companies were standing back and letting the vendors pick the standards. While its not a revolution, its a quiet evolution that I find quite noticeable. The users are taking back the definition of the standards processes.

Gunnerson: The good thing about XML is, its allowed us to use a standard engine, an XML parser, to look inside of these definitions and data stores. [But] thats about all its given us—a way to look at them. We still have a lot of work to do to make sure that were interoperable between two people in the same industry.

Coffee: So the problem with the extensibility of XML is that once someone seems to have consensus on a Document Type Definition, it turns into a Christmas tree, and everyone wants to go ahead and add something to it?

Gunnerson: Right.

Coffee: Judy, are Web services technologies of more than a casual interest at this point? Are people actually starting to do things with them?

Brown: Yes. Web services are going to be a huge player, a huge part of what were doing and what were looking at going forward.

Donston: Can you give a specific example of how Web services might be used?

Brown: Well, Web services in the education arena, as we look at delivery platforms—whether its a collaborative tool, as we just looked at, Deb, in an eValuation thats coming out [in the July 1 issue]—if we buy a solution and we go with a single product, obviously theyre not going to have everything that we want. We would love to be able to pull in some other question generator, an assessment generator, a collaborative discussion tool or conferencing communication tool, or some kind of a grade book. These could be plugged and played through Web services and called out through the right architecture (if you have the right infrastructure).

Coffee: Nelson, health care, of course, is the other area where there are an enormous number of highly specialized providers of different services that could use a better mechanism for collaboration. Will Web services provide that mechanism?

Ramos: Yes, were looking to that because, ideally, whether you call them portals or you call them updates of the patients, what were looking at is using that schema to basically provide an aggregator of real-time operations that would bring across patient-related data from all these vendors that were dealing with.

Theres a tremendous amount of desire on the part of the physicians for this because they are basically depending on this data for enhanced decision-making. The challenge is that not all vendors are embracing XML, and also health care in general seems to be walking on eggshells. Were in the midst of implementing some government-led privacy regulations, so everyones a little bit leery about sharing information at this time.

Coffee: Are you in the adoption phase of any of the big names in Web services right now— .Net, Sun ONE, IBMs new Eclipse initiative?

Ramos: Were sort of moving toward Java-based applications because theyre here now. Again, thats primarily dictated by the R&D efforts of the vendors—whos there and whos not.

Coffee: So, youre basically writing Java code that handles [Simple Object Access Protocol] messages, but youre not getting yourselves tied into any of the particular service frameworks?

Ramos: Correct.

Coffee: Judy, are you in an adoption phase on any of these frameworks?

Brown: No, were at a watch-and-see-and-test point.

Coffee: And, you, Gary?

Gunnerson: No. In fact, my comment would be that EDI [electronic data interchange] is pretty much still the lasting initiative on data exchange between businesses in our industry right now.

Coffee: So, theres really no business case for a rip-and-replace for businesses that have an EDI-based solution in place?

Gunnerson: None that I can see. The trading partners dont really change that much. The relationships and systems are already built, so theres not a real good reason to change it out at this point.

Rabuck: Alliance did a session here in Philadelphia, and we had probably about 100 customers debating [Java 2 Enterprise Edition] vs. .Net. I think, at the end of the day, most people came away not with an answer of one or the other but probably with a clear vision that theyre going to have to pick one main piece and then possibly integrate in some ways with the other.

Roundtable continued

Coffee: Nelson talked about the very high level of concern for making sure that information exchange is contained, that only the right people can see it. If theres one area where theres an opportunity for new technology to come in right now, it would be the whole area of security, privacy, confidentiality and so on. Is this an area that any of you can discuss in terms of what kind of buzz youre getting, either from your front office or just your own internal concerns?

Rosen: Security is obviously one of the big issues in the government, and theyre looking at virtually every technology thats out there and hoping someone will invent some more. I think a combination of biometrics and single sign-on is where everybody is at least trying to move, but theyre not there yet.

Ramos: I would agree. Theres an increased acceptance of what I would call infrastructure enhancements and new infrastructure technology. Typically, those are hard sells because the benefits werent directly obvious once you did an implementation. Were doing more with respect to security server monitoring.

Coffee: Are you looking at acquiring technologies or acquiring upgrades to your existing products that have been reinforced in security, or are you looking at bringing in security services?

Ramos: More technology related to [storage area networks], standby servers, security and intrusion monitoring. Again, people are realizing the effect of an interruption upon daily business services.

Coffee: Gary Bronson, I know that you operate a network that deals with operations literally all over the world, passing around some pretty sensitive data in terms of bid proposals and other commercial information. What is your security posture at this time?

Bronson: I will just say that its always under evaluation.

Coffee: Im probably not going to get many more specifics from this conversation. Not on that subject.

I wonder if we can get a quick rundown here on where people are with the various wireless strategies.

Gunnerson: We have not seen a good business case for rolling out wireless to the company in general. We have architected what we consider to be good security around wireless and are sharing that with the rest of the company, should anyone decide to implement it. At this point, it doesnt seem to be really important enough, and Im talking about wireless LANs. As far as wireless and messaging, were still piloting a few different things. The high cost of those wireless services keeps us from recommending them wholeheartedly.

Shaw: We are using wireless, as many retailers are, for inventory applications in the stores, with wireless terminals using 802.11b to connect wireless terminals back into the network for inventory count collections and similar-type information.

Coffee: You regard 802.11b as a pretty solidly established technology at this point?

Shaw: At this point in our environment, it is.

Brown: Wireless is growing considerably on campuses.

Coffee: 802.11b?

Brown: 802.11b, wondering about looking at 802.11a. I havent heard of anything really with Bluetooth yet.

Rabuck: Weve been using 802.11b with our desk center people. They find it interesting. Theyre starting to use it at home. Our CEO now has requested it on the executive floor here and wants to start piloting it. Also, Im beginning to see the value in it in roaming because its coming up in a lot of different hot spots.

Coffee: So were talking about people wanting 802.11 so they can just carry their laptops with them and bring them to a conference room or bring them to any impromptu meeting location?

Ramos: Were starting to see that. Weve adopted it in the nursing areas, allowing nurses to do their documentation closer to the patient.

Bronson: Weve been talking about benefits at some of our project sites, but were still pretty much pulling cable around at this point.

Coffee: Do you think that might change in the next year?

Bronson: Were going to run some numbers in the next quarter here. Its strictly a cost decision vs. flexibility or use or ease of installation.

Donston: For any of the people who have implemented wireless, especially Nelson in the health care area, have you applied additional security above and beyond whats built in?

Brown: We use an SSID [Service Set Identifier]. Its not discoverable, unless you have the SSID, and its changed on a monthly basis. But were not working with what I would call high-level secure content.

Rosen: Thats one of our concerns with wireless—the whole security issue.

Donston: Is there a decree thats gone out thats said, "There shall not be any wireless"?

Rosen: What were trying to do is come up with a workable policy. There are a bunch of different issues aside from security. Theres stuff in the hospital; you have to make sure you dont interfere with the hospital equipment. Right now, its all up in the air. People want wireless, but we dont have a good way of doing it yet. Were working on that.

Coffee: Is IP starting to pick up any of the services that used to be on other networks? Is storage on IP on the radar?

Rosen: Its not there yet, in our opinion.

Coffee: So, as were moving to these terabyte databases and the need for high-availability data, IP is just not ready for that role?

Rosen: Right. Thats not to say that it wont be eventually, but I dont think its there yet.

Coffee: I dont hear any disagreement on that. What about voice over IP? Is that finally ready?

Shaw: We are prototyping that in our environment here now. We are seriously considering it for our business facilities environment.

Coffee: The motivation for that is cost?

Shaw: Yes.

Bronson: We actually have a site in the Philippines that runs voice over IP. ... But if theres a problem, and there has been, then they fall back to standard voice communication.

Rabuck: Were looking at it, actually, over 802.11. I saw some amazing demonstrations last week. Maybe they just went very well at that time—it wasnt a peak period. It was through server wireless links and back to other services. It worked amazingly well.

Brown: We have been looking at it and experimenting in conjunction with some collaborative tools as well.

Coffee: When you knew we were going to be talking about emerging technologies today, what did you expect us to discuss that I havent brought up yet? Anything?

Brown: Im getting into working with alternative devices and am anxious to see whats going to happen on the tablet side.

Coffee: Do you expect to see commercial Tablet PC-type devices available before the end of the year?

Brown: This is what were told.

Coffee: Do you think they are going to be attractive?

Brown: The jurys still out. Without having had one in my hands, its pretty hard to see. It would, certainly in our arena, have a place if the price point is right.

Roundtable Participants

Roundtable Participants

eWeek Corporate Partners

Judy Brown, emerging technology analyst, University of Wisconsin System, Madison, Wis.

Gary Bronson, enterprise operations manager, Washington Group International Inc., Boise, Idaho

Gary Gunnerson, IT architect, Gannett Co. Inc., McLean, Va.

Fran Rabuck, practice leader, Mobile & Wireless, Alliance Consulting, Philadelphia

Nelson Ramos, vice president, regional CIO, Sutter Health, Modesto, Calif.

Robert Rosen, CIO, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, Bethesda, Md.

Larry Shaw, PC coordinator, Nordstrom Inc., Seattle

eWeek Editors

Peter Coffee, technology editor

Debra Donston, executive editor

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