eWEEK Corporate Partners: IT Outlook
Members of eWeeks Corporate Partner Advisory Board recently met with eWeek editors for a forward-looking roundtable discussion. The CPs discussed what their respective organizations will (and wont) spend money on this year, including content management systems, wireless LANs and biometrics. The CPs also took sides in the Java/.Net Web services debate. The consensus: Better the devil you know.
Coffee: Let me start with the spending questions. Is your budget tighter this year than last year, and do you think thats likely to continue? And what are your spending priorities for the current year?
Shaw: We have some ongoing projects from last year that are continuing heavily this year. We have been and are in the ongoing process of implementing a corporatewide perpetual inventory system, and were converting our financial systems to Sun [Microsystems Inc.]/Oracle [Corp.] from IBM mainframes.
Coffee: Is there anything new in the area of data collection in the field? Are we talking about warehouse or the store level, where these inventories are being taken?
Shaw: As part of it, we had implemented wireless scanning applications in most of the stores; were in the process of doing that for part of the inventory collection. We also had recently signed a contract over the next two years to replace all of our point-of-sale systems and point-of-sale back ends in the stores, as well as the data collection at the central site with new equipment. So were rolling out a lot of new infrastructure to support that detailed inventory and reporting.
Coffee: Nelson, its my impression that what Larry is describing in retail is similar to a lot of whats going on in health care right now, with increased use of handheld and wireless devices for collecting data and delivering data to the point of interaction with the patient and treatment control and so on. Is that what youre seeing?
Ramos: This year, were taking more of a wait-and-see attitude. I think it would be appropriate to say were looking at technology from a functionality-centric point of view. There has been a lot of investment over the last years, and what the top management is asking is, "Where have you added value; where have you integrated services?"
With respect to the products in terms of budget approvals, everything is being looked at more with the alignments, the business goals and the assignment of some executive sponsor whos in an operational role in the company.
Coffee: Kevin, you have had some pretty significant initiatives for trying to disseminate technology among your graduate students at the management schoolmore use of laptops, more use of wireless technology. How is that progressing?
Baradet: The university is probably two-thirds of the way through its wireless rollout in the libraries and public spaces across campus.
Coffee: And thats an 802.11b network?
Baradet: Yes. We had hoped that the 802.11a stuff would be shipping by now, so we could put more access points out and start to target them on a classroom basis or a smaller area, but for various technical and political reasons, that stuff hasnt shipped yet. Itll probably be Q2/Q3 this year before the enterprise-grade stuff starts to come onto the market. But once that happens, were probably going to see a large demand for support of Pocket PC, wireless-type devices.
We get inquiries on Bluetooth from time to time, and I have a standing offer [to support] the first Bluetooth device that shows up at my office. I havent had to devote resources yet.
Coffee: Would it be accurate to say then that whats limiting your technology spending is not a shortage of funds but having specific goals that the technology is not yet ready to meet?
Baradet: That and the availability of people to carry out the projects; we just dont have the staff to do everything we want to do.
Coffee: Any other sense of any shift in priorities in your spending or any general-level changes?
Baradet: Were doing a major redesign of our Web presence. Were also bringing up a large [customer relationship management] system to pull together all the data weve got floating around the school and tying that into whatever central systems are available to create better reports and tools for the management for the school.
Coffee: In terms of changing your Web presence, is that a matter of introducing new content management tools to try to reduce the labor involved in that?
Baradet: It depends. What it actually has will depend upon how much gets done between now and the launch date.
Coffee: So, youve got a fixed launch date, and youre trying to do as much as you can within that time frame?
Baradet: Right. Were also looking at content management because the scope of work for this new Web presence calls for content changes on a much more frequent basis than we have done in the past. To make that possible, were going to need some sort of content management tool to do staging and audit before the stuff gets put up. Once thats done, we need to start bringing in the other Web sites that we have, which have come up independently of the main school presence. Were going through a re-branding effort, and this is part of it.
Coffee: Gary, Im hearing real echoes here of conversations weve had with you in the past about the process of making your Web content management more streamlined and consistent.
Gunnerson: We had to develop our own content management system for USAToday.com at the end of 1994.
Coffee: And are you still using essentially a home-grown system, or have you found it desirable to transition to some of the more packaged alternatives that are available now?
Gunnerson: At USAToday.com, were still using the home-grown system. However, the company is evaluating content management systems for the rest of our newspapers and television stations at this time. Its important mainly from the standpoint that a single system hosted at our [application service provider] would allow us to leverage resources there across all the companies, saving us some money and, hopefully, allowing us to publish more timely pages with the existing staff that we have.
Coffee: Is that the main focus of whats keeping you busy today, or is that just one of many issues?
Gunnerson: Weve been fairly frugal since about a year and a half ago, and were continuing the course; we dont see any indication that things are a whole lot better. I would say our budget is either even or down from what it was last year, and were very cautious about hiring additional staff right now.
Coffee: Out of that smaller pie, are there any slices that are growing relative to the rest?
Gunnerson: Everything that youd expect after 9/11: Were seeing distance learning become important; video conferencing wasnt even a blip on our radar screen, and now its something that people are very interested in.
Were also looking into new technologies, such as wireless. We were very concerned about the security issues but feel that we can probably roll out something like that at corporate headquarters now by using our VPN [virtual private network] infrastructure, and that would be 802.11b. Were really questioning whether 802.11a is the right thing to do or whether we should wait to see how 802.11g shakes out; thats the higher-speed one, at 2.5GHz.
Coffee: What time frame do you think is appropriate to anticipate for 11g?
Gunnerson: Im still looking at it, and just from at least the preliminary specs, it looks like a better migration path from B to G than [B to A]. And you get pretty much the same benefit that you were looking for on 802.11a.
Coffee: Desktop configuration management and standardization and control were very high priorities the last time we spoke with you, Frank. Is that an area where youre continuing to focus your efforts?
Calabrese: What were really focusing in on is the whole area of service optimization. We just rolled out an internal Windows update site, where we control the update content and frequency. [We can also] do small distribution of patches and fixes to our clients a lot easier internally.
Coffee: So this is how youre addressing the concerns youve raised in the past about Windows XP and losing control of configuration as systems go out and start doing the auto-updates?
Calabrese: Absolutely, so were pointing it internally, and were gauging when this stuff gets released to the client. [For example,] our VPN provider just updated its phone book and did not do it in an elegant manner; so rather than sending out a script to all 700 users, we point them to the update site and have them get it that way.
Coffee: Is that reducing the number of touches you need to do on your machines?
Calabrese: It reduces the number of touches we do on the machines; it reduces the number of CDs we need to burn to distribute to field personnel. Its a stopgap until we can fully deploy next-generation [Systems Management Server] tools to manage remote clients, so its, again, a way of optimizing our service without adding head count and, in fact, with reducing traditional desk-side support.
Coffee: Bob, whats on your agenda these days?
Rosen: One thing Im particularly concerned about as Ive come into this new job is looking at the problem in the government that, over the next five years, 40 percent of the people can retire because theyve had hiring freezes for so long. Therefore, youve got all these systems and all the knowledge of how to operate these systems [ready] to walk out the door. Were putting a major effort into documentation; not just program documentation but the actual "how do you run these things."
Also, because part of our mission is getting health information outand we use the Web a lot for thatwere looking at some content management software to help speed up that process.
Dugger: Im working on biometrics, spatial recognition and security for police departments.
Curcuru: Can I ask you which one you prefer, Randy?
Dugger: Were still in the evaluation stage, but right now its Identix [Inc.]. They just bought Visionics [Corp.] because Visionics has the facial recognition stuff in the airports. That tends to be a hot item with the police departments, plus linking into more state and federal law agencies.
Gunnerson: Are they doing the real-time recognition through surveillance cameras?
Dugger: I really cant comment on that, and I dont think theyre ready to really get that far into it yet.
Gunnerson: So what youre saying is the technology is available, and it will be used as required.
Dugger: Pretty much.
Gunnerson: Were having conversations on it. People are starting to ask the question of at least a two-way or a three-way check on identity, and some of these technologies are fairly unobtrusive, especially the face recognition stuff.
Rosen: We were doing some experimenting with the iris technology at my previous job.
Gunnerson: That one is a little more expensive. The nice thing about the face recognition, even though its an additional data point, [is that] the cost to implement is considerably low.
Dugger: We had resistance from some of the users who just didnt like something look at their eye.
Curcuru: They didnt want to stare in the face of security.
Coffee: Would it be accurate to say that, during the next two to three years, what we deliver across the Web is going to continue to be pretty much a common denominator of what we can deliver across 56K connections?
Ramos: A few years ago, if someone wanted to connect to you, youd give them a modem and you would know absolutely when they were connecting to you. Now, its connecting my network to your network, and I dont know how secure your network is.
What were coming up against is a user expectation on speed. On large image files within your own facility or building, a radiologist could maybe take a minute to bring up an image because theyre on a high-speed network within their office. But then they want that same robustness at their home office or at the hospital.
Gunnerson: We just brought up our dark-fiber network between our data center and our corporate offices. When you have 12GB per second of throughput, there are many things that you can do that you normally wouldnt have done before.
Calabrese: Were 50 percent of the way through a major VPN deployment. For those who are fortunate enough to get a broadband connection, its changing their expectationsits moving everything they do in the office to the equivalent at home and removing the time boundaries. Yet, on the other hand, we have to put out all sorts of service disclaimers.
Coffee: Basically, youre able to take care of the capability up to your property line.
Calabrese: And on their corporate-owned PC sitting in their living room, not whats in between.
Coffee: Is there anyone here who wants to threaten to hang up if I mention the three letters XML?
Shaw: I feel the same way about XML as I do about Web services.
Coffee: Which is?
Shaw: Its a great term to lump everything into.
Curcuru: [Web services are] wonderful. I just want them, and I want them to work reliably and securely at a reasonable price.
Coffee: Is either the Java platform or the .Net platform high on your list of things that you want to understand, assimilate, train people to?
Ramos: [Were looking at the] Java platform because its here now, and it meets all our functional requirements.
Gunnerson: Ditto. If you have to do Web stuff today, use Javaits there, its mature and it works.
Shaw: I tend to trust [Java] somewhat more; Im just not sure the underpinnings of .Netboth from a security reliability standpoint and also from a corporate motivation standpointare what I necessarily want to be a part of yet.
Ramos: Right. [Javas] here today, and we can count on it.
eWeek Corporate Partners
Kevin Baradet, network systems director, S.C. Johnson School of Management, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
Frank Calabrese, manager of desktop computing, Bose Corp., Framingham, Mass.
Steve Curcuru, resident wizard, Mugar Enterprises, Boston
Randy Dugger, CEO, Dugger & Associates, San Jose, Calif.
Gary Gunnerson, IT architect, Gannett Co. Inc., McLean, Va.
Nelson Ramos, vice president, regional CIO, Memorial Hospitals Association, Modesto, Calif.
Robert Rosen, CIO, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, Adelphi, Md.
Larry Shaw, PC coordinator, Nordstrom Inc., Seattle
Moderator: Peter Coffee, eWeek technology editor