IT Moves into the Future

 
 
By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2005-03-28
 
 
 

IT Moves into the Future


After years of striving to limit the damage of downsizing and contain the chaos of malware and spam, theres a sense in the enterprise IT community that its time to start moving forward once more.

IT pros are well positioned today to take advantage of ubiquitous broadband and wireless connections and to exploit the affordable integration opportunities of Web services.

Ironically, theyre even gaining new leverage from government mandates such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act to elevate the level of IT practice.

Members of eWEEKs Corporate Partner Advisory Board recently discussed some of the routes they are exploring. The resulting themes are examined in this story and in the additional comments appearing throughout the package.

Integration and auditability

The current resurgence of corporate merger and acquisition activity is finding IT departments ready to roll in response to the resulting infrastructure integration demands—and even to convert those burdens into benefits.

"If theres one thing AT&T has been very good at, its consolidation," said Glenn Evans, district manager for enterprise foundation architecture at AT&T Global Networking Technology Services, in Middletown, N.J. "Weve gotten to the point now where weve automated so many different things."

AT&Ts IT strategy, said Evans, whose company now faces acquisition by SBC Communications Inc., lately has emphasized the notion of "concept of one"—that is, consolidation of the redundant applications that large enterprises often find themselves hosting. Thats a concept that "SBC is very eager to implement," said Evans.

That unification may also prove, in many organizations, to be a long-delayed benefit of Y2K-compliance efforts. Many companies gained experience in identifying and pruning redundancy as the first step in their Y2K remediation.

Combined with the continued shift from proprietary to open systems during the five years since that time, many enterprise IT departments find themselves far more agile than they were a decade ago—and, therefore, much more able to evaluate and adopt improved solutions.

Corporate Partner Sam Inks—whose former employer, Atlantic Research Corp., has been acquired by Aerojet—now finds himself on the cusp of that kind of system improvement.

"We ended up, as fate would have it, with totally disparate financial and manufacturing systems, human resources systems and everything else," said Inks, who is now Aerojets director of IT, in Gainesville, Va. "We started, about four weeks ago, just a complete re-evaluation of all the standard systems in both entities and started looking at consolidating into a single-vendor system—which is a major, major undertaking."

That systems overhaul, Inks said, will be driven in part by lessons learned from Aerojets completion of its first full SarbOx audit. Chief among those lessons was what Inks called an "unbelievable" explosion in required levels of business process documentation.

"Consider that no matter how well youre known ... no ones going to believe a word you say," said Inks. "Whatever you need to collect to prove that what you say is true, multiply that by two, and youre about there."

IT departments that have invested during the last few years in standards-based technologies, such as Web services, and repurposable data formats, such as XML, will reap the rewards when their systems face similar demands for integration and auditability—whether those demands are due to mergers, to regulatory mandates or to continued desire for greater supply chain efficiencies.

Next Page: The future of RFID.

Future of RFID


RFID and mobility

The latter pressure for logistical streamlining—and the resulting containment of inflation in the economy—are sometimes called "Wal-Mart effects," in homage to that retailers influence on its suppliers technology adoptions.

Even greater, though, is the purchasing power of the United States Department of Defense, which, like Wal-Mart Stores Inc., is pushing its partners to adopt the tracking technology of RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags.

Corporate Partner Ed Benincasa, vice president of MIS at defense supplier FN Manufacturing, in Columbia, S.C., is dealing with rising volumes and equally rising expectations at the DOD.

"World events have been driving business," Benincasa told the group, "and its still pretty busy. There are a lot of capacity limitations occurring. Weve had to ramp up our capacity quite significantly, and it looks like we may even have to ramp it some more."

Click here to read more about Wal-Marts RFID bundle.

Like Wal-Mart, DOD is looking to RFID technologies to improve its knowledge of workflows. "Were having to work on that to prepare to help [the DOD]," said Benincasa, adding that the department is "moving a lot of materials, and the numbers are mind-boggling."

However, high costs are limiting the infiltration of RFID up through FN Manufacturings own supply chain. Like many of Wal-Marts supply chain partners, Benincasa is hoping that RFID technology costs will quickly drop as its volume of use increases.

"We look at the current price of everything, and its a little cost-prohibitive for us to introduce it in our manufacturing operation," Benincasa said.

When floods of RFID data do start to come into FN Manufacturings processes, the company is prepared, at least in principle, to use that information effectively because it has built and tested an ERP (enterprise resource planning) infrastructure. "ERP systems are in place, and were basically happy with them," Benincasa told the group. "We use [QAD Inc.s] MFG/Pro; weve been on it for about eight years."

eWEEK Labs recommends that other companies not wait for RFID to become more affordable before starting to build systems to make good use of the knowledge that RFID can provide. Not merely database architectures but also business process models and definitions will require considerable effort and time to envision and implement if RFID is to be informative and not merely overwhelming.

As RFID brings in real-time data from objects, so do mobile applications and infrastructure need to provide real-time telepresence for users—whether with voice or text communication, or through application-driven interfaces on both conventional PC-style hardware and new personal or automotive devices.

Rising mobile-user expectations for constant connectivity and growing diversity of client hardware configurations combine to create challenges for at least two board members: Kevin Baradet, chief technology officer at the S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., and Tom Miller, director of IT at the cardiovascular health products company FoxHollow Technologies Inc., in Redwood City, Calif.

"We have built out our wireless LAN infrastructure," said Baradet. "Were looking for more things for the students over it ... some wireless applications and maybe some location-based stuff."

Baradets team is looking into some of the affinity-group technologies that let people with similar interests identify and collaborate with one another in academic as well as social settings, generalizing ideas from so-called smart name badges for use with PDAs and smart phones.

Other industries that should be examining these technologies include travel and leisure, as well as sales and marketing. Enterprise knowledge management efforts can thus extend themselves into face-to-face situations as well as electronic interactions among experts and those who need their help.

Delivering such services depends on effective use of a large installed base of client devices with varied characteristics. As enterprise applications make broader use of delivery tools that dont have traditional PC form factors, developers will have to become more adept at flowing content and function into many different environments without costly and awkward parallel-track design.

FoxHollow Technologies Miller said that one of the big issues for application designers is the matter of "screen real estate—what people can actually see on the mobile device."

Its undeniably easier to push more data out to mobile users than ever before, but this shifts the burden from hardware designers to application designers to set the limits. "The ability to be able to drill down into information," said Miller, has to be channeled into end-user value. "Were trying to see what is the appropriate amount and quality of information we can push to people in the field."

Miller is at least getting the resources he needs to attack that problem.

"[Our business unit managers understand that] technology can be an enabling agent to really extend the quality of information throughout the organization," Miller said. "So theyre willing to fund areas that they feel provide that quality of information, such as business intelligence and analytics, such as mobile access to information and dealing with compliance issues."

IT managers may find that project proposals gain a respectful and even enthusiastic hearing when these business benefits are positioned on the leading edge of the pitch.

Next Page: Open source, VOIP, grid...

Open Source, VOIP, Grid


Long awaited, good to go

Several board members stressed the newly ready-for-prime-time status of technologies that have enjoyed much buzz but relatively little momentum for the last several years.

FN Manufacturings Benincasa, for example, has begun deployment of the open-source OpenOffice productivity suite and is looking forward to improvements in Version 2 that may justify even wider deployment.

In fact, Benincasa is looking to extend his companys use of open source as far as he can. "On the desktop, were looking at Linux terminal servers to run all of the shop machines and some of the entry office machines to cut costs of managing workstations," he said.

Read more here about OpenOffice 2.0.

Benincasa emphasized ease of management, rather than lower initial cost, as the main driver for open-source and thin-client technologies at his site.

"It just takes too much time to go out there and clean up those machines," Benincasa said, reporting continued costs with administering security issues on thick clients in general and the Windows platform in particular.

"What we want to be able to do is have something more stable. And, in the terminal-service-type environment with Linux, if theres a problem with a machine, you simply ... reset the machines, and theyre all cleaned up. Were looking for efficiencies in the tools," Benincasa said.

In a similar vein, long-awaited VOIP (voice over IP) offerings are gaining momentum with board member Jorge Abellas-Martin, vice president and CIO at advertising company Arnold Worldwide, in Boston.

"VOIP is pretty mature," Abellas-Martin said, and especially attractive for advanced integration and enrichment opportunities that go beyond standard telephone service. "It would be foolhardy," Abellas-Martin added, not to include VOIP as an important component of any new telecommunications system.

At the leading edge of enterprise IT architecture are utility computing approaches, enabled in part by grid architectures.

AT&Ts Evans wasnt yet able to detail the grid technology discussions hed had with vendors in the week before the roundtable meeting but said that grid tools are high on his to-do list.

Symbolic of the shifting focus toward the benefits rather than the burdens of IT were the observations of Kevin Wilson, product line manager of desktop hardware at Duke Energy Corp., in Charlotte, N.C. Wilson has been pleased to find that spyware problems wont demand as much attention from his thinly spread staff as he had previously expected.

"It looks like the anti-virus people are going to eat up on that pretty quick," Wilson said, "so it looks like the big technology thing this year is what were not going to be doing, which is not putting out specific spyware solutions."

A year ago, Wilson said, he would have glumly predicted that anti-spyware efforts would be eating up substantial resources; now, he confidently expects that the same energy and money can go instead into terminal servers, in-the-field automation and more aggressive exploration of wide-area connectivity options.

These initiatives, Wilson said, "are not headliners in themselves but are going to bring a lot of benefit"—which seemed to be the dominant theme of the discussion. The enterprise IT year to come may finally be marked more by new benefits brought forth than by emerging hazards and adversities contained.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at peter_coffee@ziffdavis.com.

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