Times are tough for IT markets in the federal government and for rugged IT the experience has been no different. But it’s recently seen a marked improvement in demand, driven by changes both in the way government users employ IT and in the kinds of advantages rugged IT provides for that. One veteran of the government market details why that is so, and why agencies are increasingly realizing the broader advantages rugged IT offers.
q1 Rugged computing and rugged IT are, for many people, synonymous. But are they? What are the differences, if any, and what do they mean to potential agency buyers of rugged? View Answers

Doug Petteway
Vice President of Strategic Marketing, General Dynamics Itronix

Generally speaking they are synonymous. Rugged IT tends to be used to describe networks or systems that are designed to survive in remote and harsh outdoor or indoor environments, while rugged computing describes the individual computing devices such as notebooks, tablets, and servers that are used in those environments.

Agency buyers should remain keenly aware of the environment where networks and equipment will be used, and deploy the level of connectivity and rugged to successfully operate in those surroundings. For instance, the military might need fully rugged equipment that is also small and lightweight. A successful rugged deployment of IT and computing products requires a ‘top-to-bottom’ assessment of the operational environment to select networking and computing equipment specifically built to meet the needs of those specific users.

q2 Rugged computers have been around for a long time. What have been the main changes and improvements over the past five years? View Answers

Doug Petteway
Vice President of Strategic Marketing, General Dynamics Itronix

Until about five years ago, there were few if any displays on the market that could be easily used in bright sunlight without washing out the image. General Dynamics Itronix solved this problem with DynaVue technology, among the industry’s first sunlight- viewable displays. Typically extra-bright displays provide reasonable levels of viewability in direct sunlight but may reduce battery life. The key is to make sure that the display you choose meets the military standard (MIL STD 3009) for viewability in direct sunlight. This is the same test used to determine if aircraft cockpit displays are visible in direct sunlight.

There have also been significant improvements for the user interface including more durable keyboards, improved keyboard backlighting, larger touch pads and more responsive touch screens that can be used with gloves on.

q3 Times are tough in government and will probably remain so for some time. Why should agencies buy rugged computers rather than lower priced systems that could be robust enough? View Answers

Doug Petteway
Vice President of Strategic Marketing, General Dynamics Itronix

As we’ve discussed, matching the user’s environment with the right degree of ruggedness should be an agency’s first consideration. For instance, does the user work in an office or other environment that is predictable and stays the same from day to day? Then a commercial-grade computer may be the best choice.

On the other hand, are users working in extreme heat or cold? Rain, snow, sleet or hail? High dust or sand conditions? Bright sun? Do they bump around in a truck? If so, a rugged computer might be the best option.

Although a commercial-grade PC costs less at the outset, the lost productivity, repair and replacement costs resulting from operation in a non-office environment changes the true Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for commercial-grade computers. According to VDC Research, the average annual TCO of a ruggedized notebook or tablet is 59 percent lower than the average annual TCO of a consumer-grade device. By the third year of deployment, there is an 83% failure rate for commercial notebooks, but with rugged PCs it’s just 18%.

q4 What will be the impact of increasing IT security and cybersecurity needs on rugged IT? View Answers

Doug Petteway
Vice President of Strategic Marketing, General Dynamics Itronix

Securing information that moves through networks and is stored on computers is a very important consideration when selecting any computing equipment and is of critical importance for mobile professionals. These computers and systems are often exposed to risks that include equipment lost or stolen from the workspace or vehicle, access by unauthorized personnel when the equipment is unattended or when wireless data is intercepted by unauthorized sources.

Current models as well as new and updated products have cybersecurity built in and we continue to incorporate additional cyber secure technologies and capabilities. From the first phase of product development we select technologies and features that will ensure the most secure devices possible, from encrypted hard drives to FIPS-compliant smart card and finger print readers.

We also understand the security needs that underlie cloud-based systems for the military, government, finance, even power and utility companies. General Dynamics Itronix provides Tadpole Ultra-Thin Client stateless devices or “cloud appliances” that deliver remarkable security controls in cloud based solutions. With the total elimination of data stored at the edge of the network, organizations have more effective control of the information, combined with stronger security to detect and avoid threats or malicious behavior.

q5 How do the newer generation of devices such as smart phones and tablet computers fit into the rugged arena? Just another device, or is something different needed? View Answers

Doug Petteway
Vice President of Strategic Marketing, General Dynamics Itronix

Never before has there been such widespread openness to new form factors for mobile workers. Smart phones and consumer tablets are finding new operational niches including data collection, casework and records maintenance.

We believe that there will be greater adoption of rugged tablets and handheld devices, and along with that new applications developed specifically for them. The challenge for rugged device manufacturers is to consistently create devices that are thin, light and easy to use while providing the durability, security and reliability necessary for mobile workforces.

q6 How do agencies measure the ROI of their rugged investment? Are there any hidden factors they need to take into account? View Answers

Doug Petteway
Vice President of Strategic Marketing, General Dynamics Itronix

For our agency customers, the biggest factors in calculating ROI are often “soft costs.” Downtime is expensive. For the military and public safety professionals, there is no room for error. The inconvenience and loss of employee productivity in the field has been estimated to cost $1600 per day, and represents 40% of mobile device TCO.

Improved reliability means increased productivity and enhanced timeliness of information sharing. Longer product utility also means reduced training and support costs.

q7 What does your company bring to the table that is different from other rugged vendors? View Answers

Doug Petteway
Vice President of Strategic Marketing, General Dynamics Itronix

First and foremost General Dynamics Itronix has a culture of innovation that has led to many industry firsts including the use of magnesium for computer housing; integrated wireless WAN capabilities; internal, highly sensitive GPS and the development of DynaVue sunlight-viewable display technology to name a few. All of these technologies were driven by a singular focus to satisfy customer needs. We spend a great deal of time working with our customers to understand their needs and develop ‘purpose-built’ products that help them accomplish their mission.

General Dynamics supports and integrates the most secure networks in the world. We are experts in distributed/mobile computing solutions in extreme environments. For over 50 years, General Dynamics has developed and designed some of the world’s most advanced systems and delivers solutions at the pivotal points where communication and information technologies converge.

q8 Displays and the user interface are becoming increasingly important. What does rugged mean for touchscreens and other kinds of interfaces, such as voice? View Answers

Doug Petteway
Vice President of Strategic Marketing, General Dynamics Itronix

Consumer products are offering user experiences that are also expected to be available in the battlefield, the warehouse and remote utility or field service sites. Touchscreen technology for rugged devices continues to advance. The challenge is that the technology currently used in consumer tablets and smart phones fail if the display gets wet. If the user is wearing gloves, or is working in extreme temperatures, again the screen will fail. Resistive technology provides a solid framework for evolving touchscreen displays, and we expect that new technologies will soon deliver additional improvements.

When it comes to other interfaces, software applications can take a leading role. For instance, the GD300 wearable computer is being used with situational awareness software applications. Following feedback from those working with the GD300, we added voice capture so that users can speak into the microphone, record what they’re saying, and integrate this into the application as a piece of data.

So, it’s not hardware alone but a combination of hardware and software that’s going to drive innovation.

q9 There are specifications that define rugged computing, but how would you define what the user experience is or should be? View Answers

Doug Petteway
Vice President of Strategic Marketing, General Dynamics Itronix

Very simply, the computer just has to work. No excuses.

Ergonomic design plays a big role in the usability of rugged devices. Combining ergonomic design with functional reliability and structural durability is the foundation for rugged computing. It also needs to be easy to use and quick to learn, so using a familiar environment like Windows is important.

Rugged computers have to perform regardless of the operational situation. For maximum flexibility, the GD8200 has four keyboard options to make it easy to see and to use in the dark, in the rain or bright sunshine. Touchscreens that can be used effectively with gloves on also enhance the usability of rugged devices in extreme environments.

q10 What emerging technologies will most influence the rugged computing/IT sector over the next few years? View Answers

Doug Petteway
Vice President of Strategic Marketing, General Dynamics Itronix

Advances in touchscreen technology will enable multi-touchscreens to function and survive in harsh environments. In addition, keyboards are becoming thinner, lighter, more responsive and more rugged. They will also be easier to backlight and provide an improved user experience. In the not-so-distant future keyboard, backlighting can be controlled to light specific areas of the keyboard.

Touchpads are going to get larger and will allow for multi-touch gestures rather than just point and click; in fact, this feature is already available on our GD8200 notebook. Hand gestures may soon be a way to interface with the computer in ways similar to certain gaming systems on the market today.

In terms of ruggedness, you are going to see some changes in materials. Interestingly enough, when Itronix first used magnesium for housings, it was used because of the metal’s RF shielding properties rather than durability. We are also looking at using technologies enabling cloud computing and future networking. As carriers rollout LTE and expand their footprint into rural areas, there are many interesting wireless applications on the horizon.

q11 There is a bewildering array of computers and devices that have the term "rugged" affixed to them. How do agencies that want to buy rugged decide what is and isn't? View Answers

Doug Petteway
Vice President of Strategic Marketing, General Dynamics Itronix

Two words… Field Trials. The best advice I can give anyone who has to deploy devices in harsh environments is to get units from various manufacturers and put them to work. This is really the only way to weed through all the variables associated with a deployment.

Get familiar with terminology and standards that define ruggedness. There are standards like Military Standard 810 and Intrusion Protection (IP) Rating, which agencies should understand and be comfortable with when comparing rugged products. One caveat is to understand that testing needed to achieve these standards can be tailored to what the device manufacturer determines is a “typical” environment. So be careful, these are not completely objective tests, and not all devices that pass are tested in the same way. General Dynamics Itronix has an experienced service team that credits years of unique deployments to draw on. Leverage this experience; it is actually one of the factors that differentiates Itronix from other rugged computer manufacturers.

q12 Rugged IT for rugged environments is a pretty obvious pitch. But are there any other, less obvious situations in which agencies could profit by using rugged computers/IT? View Answers

Doug Petteway
Vice President of Strategic Marketing, General Dynamics Itronix

It is impressive to see how agencies are adapting and adopting commercial capabilities and rolling them into ruggedized handheld computing devices. Enhanced mapping applications can be built upon a GPS module; so think US Geological Survey or the Park Service. Data collection can be automated with barcode and magnetic stripe recorders, so consider how that capability might secure the nation’s transportation infrastructure.

Communications can be enhanced with 3G and 4G support for better real time awareness, perhaps a factor for FEMA or the EPA. With a rugged tablet like the new GD3015, signature capture in the field means that public health and safety agencies have new options for reducing paperwork and saving on associated data entry costs.

Improved return on investment and reduced total cost of ownership are important advantages in these budget-constrained times. Gartner Research recommends a four- to five-year primary useful life for ruggedized handhelds, even longer in many applications. So from both an enhanced services and cost savings perspective, “going rugged” makes sense for many government agencies.

q13 What do agency IT departments need to keep in mind when rugged IT is introduced into the mix? View Answers

Doug Petteway
Vice President of Strategic Marketing, General Dynamics Itronix

They need to be sensitive to the environments in which the devices are being deployed and understand that the user is not a traditional worker that’s tied to a desk. They’re mobile and uptime is absolutely critical to completing their mission.

Real-time technical support and thoughtful imaging can save time and money. It is worth the time and investment for customers to run extensive tests before fielding new equipment.

Having reliable IT services for these mobile workers is vital, because the support infrastructure that delivers rugged notebooks versus one that delivers commercial-grade notebooks to an enterprise is very different in terms of the types of calls the IT department will get. That kind of high-end support is something we’ve used to differentiate ourselves over the years.

q14 What is the outlook for rugged computing/IT in the government space over the next five years? Are there any areas that will be stronger than others, and why? View Answers

Doug Petteway
Vice President of Strategic Marketing, General Dynamics Itronix

The digital age means that the federal agent in a vehicle, warfighter in-theater, anyone who needs to obtain information quickly as well as to capture information about their environment and ultimately report to headquarters or base is reality for many mobile professionals. As we indicated earlier, understand the environment of the end-user, understand the job and the critical operations they must perform when on duty and design your computing product needs based on their requirements.

The initial outlay for rugged equipment may be more than commercial-grade equipment, but increased worker productivity, reduced maintenance and replacement costs and improved reliability pays significant dividends in just a year or two.

q15 What is your company's rugged computing/IT strategy for the next 3-5 years? View Answers

Doug Petteway
Vice President of Strategic Marketing, General Dynamics Itronix

General Dynamics Itronix rugged computers have been instrumental in ensuring the safety and effectiveness of mobile professionals for more than 25 years. We remain committed to designing and delivering next-generation technologies and innovative computing equipment for our customers worldwide.

Our cost effective, highly reliable devices are built for the ‘edge’ of the network, from rugged servers, notebooks, tablets, and handheld devices to mobile thin clients. Going forward, General Dynamic Itronix plans to continue delivering computing solutions for the mobile professional whose job intersects the point where communication and information technologies converge.