FOSE 2007

Best in show

The winners and near-winners at FOSE 2007

For both better and worse, FOSE 2007 was all about being pragmatic, at least as far as new products being displayed at the show.

While the trade show has never quite gotten the first cut of the bleeding edge, it seemed like this year vendors were playing it particularly safe, displaying minor revisions to already mature software rather than unveiling previously unimagined technologies.

And likewise, as the GCN Best of FOSE judges selecting the top new products at this year's show, we steered a conservative course as well. After all, agencies have modest budgets and minimal discretionary funding, so luxury trappings got a hard look against the more practical offerings.

Take for instance, videoconferencing systems. Cisco Systems Inc. submitted its $79,000 TelePresence system that, as those who visited this demo could testify, offers an amazing experience. With a little suspension of disbelief, you could imagine the people you were videoconferencing with were right there in the room with you.

The 65-inch plasma screens provide high-definition 1080-pixel video of the remote users, a resolution about six times sharper than standard television. Yet, in the end, for the videoconferencing category, we chose the MCU 4500 from Codian Inc. This voice and video bridge had a very practical feature the ability to unify high-definition and standard-definition videoconference endpoints. If a party joins a session with only standard-definition equipment, the other participants who are using HD endpoints don't have their HD images automatically dumbed down to standard, as is typically done today. After all, not every office can afford HD.

A similar leveling occurred in printers as well. We admired Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Z31000ps GP printer. This high-end unit as a self-correcting ink print head, one with built-in International Color Consortium profiles, ensuring truly accurate color printing. Evidently, colors can change from printer to printer, a problem that plagues those who need a truly accurate printed representation of what is on the screen. The head matches the colors it is about to produce against the standard definitions for these colors, correcting any differences. So each Z31000ps in your office will produce exactly the same output. Also, if you look at a standard printer's photo output, you will notice that certain colors shine more in the light. Not so with the Z31000ps, because one of the 11 inks loaded inside is a special gloss that is applied differently depending on the color being printed. So across any image, the shine is equal.

But such accuracy comes with a price. Depending on the version, this HP printer can run $5,095 to $7,495. We imagine the number of government users who would actually require such a printer is quite small.

Likewise, we were impressed by DESIGNmate CX 3D Printer, from Ideal Scanners and Systems Inc. This $47,000 printer actually produces three-dimensional replicas of physical objects, using a computer-aided design file or geographic information system data. This printer builds a model by applying layer after layer of color powders to a surface, using nozzles like an ink-jet printer. A typical model can be completed within a few hours, far less time than it would take to carve out models from balsa wood and plastic by hand. And assuming your CAD file is accurate, your model is going to be extremely precise as well. But again, outside of the military, how many offices could use such an admittedly intriguing product?

So, for printers, we chose Xerox Corp.'s Phaser 8560MFP, priced more modestly at $1,499. We liked that it runs on hot-swappable subscriber identity module cards, which hold the specific configuration of that printer. When something goes wrong with the printer, you could replace the SIM card and return to the original configuration. Or you could mail the card back to Xerox to diagnose the problem.

The 8560MFP is also a solid ink printer, one of the most environmentally friendly of the entire show. With no bulky toner cartridges and an ink media that is almost completely consumed, the printer produces almost no waste products. In fact, for every 100,000 pages you print, you are only generating about five pounds of waste. Couple that with the smart activation and deactivation to save power, and you have a green printer that would make even Al Gore proud.

The green gang

Going green was, in fact, a big theme of the show, and we recognized a few of the smartest products in this realm, such as HP's DC5750 mini-tower desktop computer (below).

The power unit in this computer can achieve 80 percent power efficiency, up from the industry norm of 50 percent. The power supply works a bit like a capacitor, which can smooth out the surges in electricity so the excess power doesn't radiate off as heat. The box uses the X2 3800+ dual-core processors from Advanced Micro Devices Inc., which are tuned to sip only 35 watts each. The computer is the first desktop PC to be certified through the newest version of the E-Star requirements from the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program.

Opterons also power the Gateway E-9722R server, another one of our winners. This server packs up to four AMD dual-core Opteron processors in a 3U space, an architecture that would probably be impossible with more power-hungry processors (which give off more heat). We liked that Gateway harnessed energy-efficient chips to save room on the rack space.

In fact, we gave AMD the GCN's top award, the Best in Show, for its Opteron processor, mainly because of the sorts of energy-efficient products it is engendering. AMD tunes its Opterons to run in one of three thermal envelopes, or power bands. The latest dual-core processors can run at 68 watts, with the clock speed dialed down to minimize energy usage. The processors are also available in 95-watt or high-performance 120-watt configurations. This flexibility paves the way for system builders to easily craft systems for government users who may not need full-bore performance and would want to trim their energy bills a bit instead.

All the FOSE flavors

Though not entirely subjective, the criteria for choosing a Best of FOSE winner come down to several factors, which may vary from year to year and even from judge to judge. The team for the Best of FOSE awards consists of the technical writing staff at GCN and its affiliate publication Washington Technology. Both publications are owned by the same parent company, 1105 Government Information Group, that runs FOSE.

This team's judging is influenced by the expertise we've garnered on our beats. When our lab director, John Breeden II, raved that the 26-inch NEC LCD2690WUXi is one of the best displays he's seen, that evaluation comes from years of looking at such monitors. 'It's hard for me to explain how great it was. It's just beautiful,' Breeden testified at our gathering to decide which products would get the award. The sample images being displayed on the monitor at FOSE looked like they came from a DVD, even though they were just being served up by a standard image viewer application.

Video was also the crucial feature of the new rugged notebook computer from Motorola Inc. It's tough to beat the ToughBook from Panasonic, a multiple-year award winner at FOSE. But this Motorola unit comes with a dedicated video input jack, as well as a video card with 128MB of dedicated memory, anticipating the increasing need to work with video in challenging environments. We also liked that Motorola itself is entering the rugged computer space, because competition spurs innovation.

As for criteria, appropriateness and usefulness for government users is a big factor, but so is newness. Many great products on the show floor have been out for several years, and while new versions may sport features (Really Simple Syndication support was a big addition this year), it takes a major upgrade to grab our attention.

Take Version 4 of InfraStruXure Central (left), from American Power Conversion Inc. This environmental monitoring software has actually been out for a few years. The software taps into data center sensors and monitors the temperature, humidity and other factors. The newly released version is the first to incorporate support for Netbotz equipment. APC recently purchased this company, which offered a full line of well-regarded sensors and Web cameras for monitoring data centers. This version also offers the ability to support third-party devices, which greatly expands its range from APC-only shops to more heterogeneous environments.

But even in this jaded age, the judging team can be surprised by a piece of software that has no precedent. Such is the case of Splunk, software being sold by the company of the same name. Splunk is a universal search engine for administrative log files. It allows administrators to search for device names, users, IP numbers or time frames across many different servers and platforms, allowing them to successfully filter out material and pinpoint hard-to-spot errors. Generally, log file interpreters/search engines to date have been very platform- or even program-specific, but Splunk has eliminated that restriction.

As usual, security was a big concern. Housed in the form of an external hard drive case, CPR Tools' DefenDisk is a degausser that can quickly wipe all contents off a hard drive. 'This puppy shoots out 3,000 gauss of electromagnetic data death,' observed FOSE judge William Jackson, noting that this gear would be perfect for protecting sensitive data in potentially hostile environments. We also looked favorably upon the Stealth MXP from MXI Security, which is a Federal Information Processing Standard-140 certified USB drive with 256-bit authentication and a built-in fingerprint reader. 'It takes two-factor authentication just to activate the device,' Jackson said.

Speaking of two-factor authentication, which all agencies must grapple with now, BioPassword software from BioPassword Inc. offers a form of software-based authentication, an appealing notion because it requires no hardware. BioPassword uses the way each person types as a form of authentication. Evidently, typing styles are as unique as fingerprints. One judge tried typing in the password of another user at the show but was not given access, even after multiple attempts.

While one judge quipped that Bill Gates probably doesn't need any more jewels in his crown, we had to give props to Microsoft Corp.'s new Windows Vista operating system. In a way, Vista is most notable in the press that it has not generated. It's been out for a few months and we have not heard any word of major vulnerabilities, which, considering the attention malicious hackers give to Microsoft Windows, is quite a victory.

And Vista impressed us for more than security improvements. The desktop software also seemed to be more suited to the multitasking world we work in now. Vista offers miniature views of the other windows you have open on your desk, not just icons, giving you a real vista of what you're working on. The word that kept coming to our judge's mind was 'cool,' from the soothing undersea world of the desktop theme to the way you can make a virtual Rolodex out of your files.

Speaking of the cool factor, we'd be remiss in not giving a nod to the new BlackBerry 8800, from Research in Motion Ltd. Govvies love their CrackBerries and there is much to admire in this newest slimmed-down version, which can read SD memory cards and even communicate with nearby personal information managers when cell towers go unresponsive. 'That [could be] real good for emergency response,' judge Patrick Marshall noted.

And, finally, simply living large can be award-worthy at FOSE. Eastman Kodak Co.,'s monster i1860 Scanner won our respect with its sheer ability to scan 200 pages per minute, in both black and white and color, using dual scanning trays.

Such a machine could be good for large-scale digital conversion projects. 'It's $85,000, but it is very powerful and would need very little maintenance,' reviewer Greg Crowe noted. Isilon Systems' Isilon IQ clustered storage system got the nod for its ability to be scale up to 1 petabyte under a single file system. At FOSE, the company announced that NASA was using this system for its World Wind virtual earth service, which contains more than 8,000 large Landsat 7 satellite images.

And HP showed off its NeoView, which could be called an enterprise data warehouse in a box'albeit a very a big box. Ultimately, this system'a preassembled rack of 16 Itanium processors and storage disks (expandable up to 64 processors)'was configured to run business intelligence software from the likes of SAS or Business Objects (though it wasn't installed during FOSE). It would be a good fit for agencies that need to do heavy analysis but may not want to fuss with optimizing performance of the hardware for such large jobs. We liked that the number of disks equals the number of processors, which allows parallelization of search and other tasks that could speed analysis work. Big can also be smart'as well as award-worthy.

Doug Beizer, John Breeden II, Greg Crowe, Joab Jackson, William Jackson, Patrick Marshall, Trudy Walsh and Rutrell Yasin served as judges for the 2007 GCN Best of FOSE.

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