Tools and techniques

GCN Leadership Awards

The winners of this year's GCN Technology Leadership Awards used some of the most effective technologies and project management techniques available. Here is a brief primer on those approaches.

ITIL

What it is: The Information Technology Infrastructure Library provides a framework by documenting best-practices approaches to managing IT services.

Developed by the United Kingdom's Office of Government Commerce, ITIL's approach is explained in a number of books and continues to evolve ' it currently is in Version 3. ITIL provides checklists and other procedures in areas such as incident management and service delivery, and it has gained international acceptance.

To get more information, start at www.itil-officialsite.com.

What it can do: ITIL's systematic approach can help organizations improve IT development, operations and delivery of services. However, implementation can be a slow process, and it can require extensive staff training.

Example: Drew Jaehnig, chief of the Operations Division at the Defense Information Systems Agency's Joint Staff Support Center, used ITIL as a guide for reorganizing JSSC's service-desk functions in one of the first successful ITIL implementations in the U.S. federal government.

Fast fact: ITIL got its start in the late 1980s in the British Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency and was called Government Information Technology Infrastructure Management. It caught on in Europe in the early 1990s. In 2000, Microsoft used ITIL as the basis of its Microsoft Operations Framework. ITIL Version 2 was published in 2001; Version 3 followed in 2007.

ERP

What it is: Enterprise resource planning software has been around for some time, but its role in large organizations could grow as more enterprises seek to consolidate systems and integrate their data. The effects of ERP, which grew out of an approach called manufacturing resource planning, extend beyond information technology to all facets of an operation.

What it can do: Operating from a central database, ERP can allow you to integrate data and systems and, by extension, help enable the data sharing within and outside an organization that many government agencies strive for. Implementation can be difficult, however. It often requires breaking down long-established IT fiefdoms in addition to being expensive and requiring thorough planning and ongoing training.

Example: Susan Keen, technical director of the Navy's ERP Program, championed technical requirements for the largest public-sector ERP ever built.

The Navy, noting that many integrator-led ERP projects had run considerably over budget, decided to take control of the program, including product development. Day-to-day management alongside integrator BearingPoint allowed the Navy to get the results it wanted and get them on time.

Fast fact: If you're interested in ERP but find technical journals a bit dry, you might want to try 'Why ERP?,' a short novel by F. Robert Jacobs and D. Clay Whybark, which offers a narrative on how to implement ERP. It was patterned after Eli Goldratt's business novel, 'The Goal.'

WEB 2.0

What it is: Web 2.0 doesn't have as much to do with the World Wide Web as with how you use it. The key word associated with Web 2.0 is one any agency can appreciate: collaboration. Rather than denoting a new version of the Web, the phrase refers to user-generated content, interaction and transactions that occur via relatively new platforms, such as wikis, social- and professional-networking sites, mashups, and blogs. Extensible Markup Language-based tools, Rich Internet Applications, standards-oriented browsers and a variety of other developing technologies are making Web 2.0 possible.

What it can do: Agencies have recently been making widespread use of Web 2.0 tools for everything from military recruiting to emergency preparedness plans developed by federal, state and local organizations using wikis. Such tools also can facilitate long-distance collaboration among dispersed workgroups.

Examples: Sheila Campbell, team leader of USA.gov Web Best Practices at the General Services Administration, has pushed for Web 2.0 capabilities on government Web sites as part of an overall improvement effort.

The key to her approach is collaboration.

She is co-chairwoman of the Web Managers Advisory Council at the Library of Congress, is in charge of USA.gov's Web Manager University and has played a key role in expanding the Web Content Managers Forum ' which includes representatives from federal, state and local organizations ' from a handful of members in 2001 to more than 1,300.

Nancy Sternberg, the Small Business Administration's Business Gateway program manager, uses Web 2.0 tools to foster collaboration among her staff members and contractors. For example, they use Basecamp, an open-source project management application that helps them work around the contractors' inability to access an internal drive. She also led an upgrade to Google Customer Search Engine technology to improve access to local regulations and use open-source Alfresco software for content management.

Fast fact: The term Web 2.0 reportedly was coined in 2004 in a discussion among representatives of MediaLive International and Tim O'Reilly and Dale Dougherty, both of O'Reilly Media. Later that year, O'Reilly hosted the first Web 2.0 conference. On O'Reilly's Web site, www.oreilly.com, he offers an explanation of what is and is not Web 2.0.

SOA

What it is: Service-oriented architecture refers to the collection and coordination of services delivered most commonly via Internet protocols. Usually relying on Web services built with Extensible Markup Language or one of its variations, SOA separates and integrates resources to make them available on demand.

What it can do: SOA can improve business processes by making large applications available as smaller modules. Significantly for government agencies, it can make better use of older systems ' and extend their life cycle ' by establishing a technology framework to let them share information across traditional boundaries.

Example: Toward the end of his recent five-year stint with the Peace Corps, Ram Murthy added a twist to SOA, using it to bring services to the corps' widely dispersed volunteer force in areas with intermittent connectivity. A general tenet of SOA is that its Web services are always available, which is not possible in many Peace Corps locations.

Murthy promoted an SOA in which services are delivered when needed or available without being concerned about constant connectivity.

Fast fact: SOA, like many other technology innovations, has its devotees. But few others have a Web site like soafacts.com.

There you'll find comments like these: 'SOA is the only thing Chuck Norris can't kill'; 'SOA is an anagram for OSA, which means female bear in Spanish. It is a well-known fact in the Spanish-speaking world that female bears are able to model business processes and optimize reusable IT assets better than any other hibernating animal'; and 'SOA is the correct answer to all zen koans.'

SECURING SOA

What it is: Service-oriented architecture can bring your organization many benefits, but it also can make securing your networks difficult. Widely accessible, distributed services can leave holes in your network environment.

One way to secure a SOA starts with the tools used to build it, such as Business Process Execution Language or Extensible Markup Language. It's advisable to try to build in security throughout the development process.

What it can do: Securing SOA is essential to delivering the benefits SOA was designed for.

Example: Because of SOA's far-reaching nature, securing it requires a comprehensive plan. Carlos Vera, deputy program manager of the Defense Information Systems Agency's Net-Centric Enterprise Services, took a performance- based approached, concentrating on requirements without telling the providers how to meet them. He also, to an extent, mirrored SOA's distributed nature by forgoing a centralized approach to enterprise security.

Fast fact: Web Services Security, commonly called WS-Security, released by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, provides a protocol for securing Web services. http://www.oasis-open.org/committees/wss.

HIGH-PERFORMANCE COMPUTING

What it is: High-performance computing ties together dozens, hundreds or even thousands of microprocessors to work as a single computer. HPC systems often can execute trillions of floating-point operations/sec, or teraflops. They can be built relatively inexpensively by tying together commodity servers and open-source clustering software, such as Beowulf.

What it can do: HPC systems can tackle problems too large for a single computer to execute by breaking up the task across multiple processors. Some problems, such as fluid dynamics, weather modeling and in-depth product design, can only be modeled accurately on HPC systems.

Examples: Using an Energy Department HPC system, the University of Chicago's Center for Astrophysical Thermonuclear Flashes simulated in fine-grain detail the detonation of a dwarf star into a full-blown supernova, a job that required 2.5 million hours of processing time. Early results offered a glimpse into the nature of dark matter. NASA is using its Columbia supercomputer for groundbreaking simulations of black holes.

Fast fact: The most powerful HPC system in 1993, as judged by the first compilation of the Top500.org list, would not rank even at the bottom of today's Top 500 list.

No. 1 in 1993 was Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's CM-5/1024, which was capable of 60 billion floating-point opera tions/sec, or 60 gigaflops. In November, Top500.org declared Lawrence Livermore's BlueGene/L System, capable of 478.2 teraflops, the fastest computer of 2007.

TELEWORK TOOLS

What it is: Telework is nothing new, but it has gained steam in government for reasons that range from green initiatives to attracting and retaining employees. Better, less-expensive tools ' from wikis to videoconferencing setups ' make it a viable option for more workers.

What it can do: Aside from attracting a wider pool of talent without having to consider commuting distance, studies show that telework tends to increase productivity and reduce turnover. Tangential benefits include reduced traffic and automobile emissions.

And the hardware and software that support telework can extend beyond workers at home or a telework center for videoconferencing and other applications throughout the enterprise.

Example: More than 40 percent of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's 10,000 workers use the agency's telework program, as do 86 percent of its trademark and patent examination attorneys. And more continue to come on board. Acting Chief Information Officer Deborah Diaz said USPTO has instituted 17 telework initiatives.

Fast fact: A February 2000 paper by Wendell Joice at the Office of Governmentwide Policy credits Jack Nilles as the father of telework. He telecommuted from Los Angeles to Washington in the early 1960s as a consulting rocket scientist at the Air Force Space Program. In early 1973, Nilles coined the terms telecommuting and teleworking.

He later noted that although he pioneered telecommuting while working for the government, he could not get federal authorities interested in its wider application.

RFID/WI-FI LOGISTICS TRACKING

What it is: Tracking supplies and vehicles can help organizations better manage their inventories and fleets. For supplies, many agencies rely on radio frequency identification tags fixed to crates or items.

The tags send radio signals to readers, and that information is relayed to a central control center. Wireless tracking systems, such as those used for vehicle fleets, use Global Positioning System transmitters and receivers.

What it can do: Inventory systems have the obvious benefit of providing a near-real-time view of the status and location of supplies and materiel. Fleet systems help organizations more efficiently manage their vehicles.

Example: John Edgar, manager of the U.S. Postal Service's Network Operations Business Solutions Portfolio, has put several tracking systems to use at USPS. The Surface Visibility System uses mobile bar code scanners with 802.11 wireless capability at nearly 180 mail processing plants nationwide.

More than 20,000 employees use the system, which is the result of strict requirements monitoring and collaborative engineering. Edgar also is leading a test at two bulk mail centers of the Yard Management System, which uses a radio tag system and 802.11 wireless to manage postal vehicles.

Fast fact: The use of tracking systems is likely to get a boost as IPv6 is more widely adopted. IPv6 will allow a virtually unlimited number of IP address, which could be affixed to individual products as they are produced to enable their wireless tracking through a supply chain. The Defense Department, for example, is mulling the possibility of eventually assigning IP addresses to individual supplies and armaments.

ID CARD MANAGEMENT

What it is: The government has been moving steadily toward identity cards with embedded chips to authenticate everyone from employees entering buildings or logging on to government networks to foreign visitors entering the country. Programs of this scale require not only reliable on-site equipment but also back-end systems capable of managing and securing the data, What it can do: Accurate identification of employees or visitors increases security by protecting physical and technological infrastructures in practically any situation.

Example: Mike Butler knows a lot about large government ID card programs.

He worked on an early Navy program and then the Defense Department's Common Access Card Program, which has issued more than 11 million cards to military service members and civilian employees. He then came to the General Services Administration as program manager of its Managed Service Office to develop the USAccess Program, which issues government ID cards in accordance with Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12.

Fast fact: A day before the October 2006 deadline for agencies to begin issuing HSPD-12 cards, the Philadelphia lab producing the first batch told GSA it would not be able to ship the cards in time. Butler drove to Philadelphia, spent the night in his car on the lab's parking lot, got a box of cards at about 6:30 a.m. and drove back to Washington in time for a ceremony GSA had arranged to commemorate the event.

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