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Imagine What Might Be Possible

December 2011
By Capt. Joseph A. Grace Jr., USN (Ret.), SIGNAL Magazine

 
You may remember that old New Orleans house I mentioned in a previous column and its ongoing renovation that so closely matches the process of upgrading legacy federal information technology systems. The house was built in 1890, by true artisans, with thick plaster walls, joists made out of solid red pine or cypress, a slate roof, ornate ironwork, thick wooden floors, nine monstrous fireplaces and all the supporting brickwork that was certainly made for beauty, functionality and durability. However, it was not made for wireless networks, sound systems or any other type of technology innovation.

For years I had been cobbling together a variety of routers and hubs—Radio Shack and Best Buy gear—to make it work. Not only did I not really know what I was doing, my efforts had resulted in conflicts, nulls and competing technology disasters. The result was that I had all sorts of technology tools such as iPads, PC tablets and a variety of wireless devices lying around unused because the network was not ready to support them, and it was too hard to network them. No matter how cool the technology, it just did not seem to work in this old house. The computers did not see each other, and the wireless printers were not that wireless. We had to email documents to other computers to print in color or to take a scanned image to another machine. It was a constant nightmare and a tremendous waste of time, and the workarounds became more and more frustrating.

After years of fighting the issue, I finally broke down and had a company with true expertise in networks and systems come in and perform a full analysis of the property and set up my wireless networks. These included computers—yes Mac and PC, which although they were supposed to talk to each other with ease, never had—printers, phones, faxes, televisions and all other gadgets. The result was a synchronized, secure, robust network infrastructure; a process I had fought for many years. We threw out the older routers, hot spots and other legacy technology I had procured over the years and essentially put all the effort and dollars into a modern network infrastructure. Suddenly all of the technology worked. Suddenly iPads that previously had suffered from a constantly dropping signal, having to reconnect and reset service set identifiers and other security codes, now were seamless. Laptops that had been stationary in their docking stations began roaming different rooms of the house, including the front or back porch, out by the pool or in the yard. Movies suddenly could stream everywhere, and it all just works.

(Aside: I still cannot obtain a good cell phone signal in the house. After I did the upgrade, all the calls that previously were dropped … still are dropping. They represent a different technology, and that is the next upgrade. I guess I’ll still use that old dependable landline when I’m home.)

So what would be possible if we did the same thing across our networks within federal and state governments—could we let the technology companies come in and take a serious look at our infrastructure? What if we gave them the latitude to make our infrastructure secure, robust, technically viable and fully functional, and if we utilized the service-oriented architecture we constantly talk about, with open application program interfaces and standards we could distribute and build to? Just imagine.

Once we did that, what would be possible? We have talked about bringing iPads into our hospitals and clinics; bringing tablets into our workplace and really using the power of the mobile world and telecommuting, videoconferencing and becoming mobile; but are our infrastructures ready for these devices and the sudden surge in utilization? Have we gone through and managed the network to be ready for the new technology? If we did, what technology that has been lying around our shops—equipment we’ve already paid for but haven’t been able to fully exploit—would suddenly start working?

Imagine how our productivity and utilization, modularity and agility would improve. We talk about saving money and reducing our costs; sometimes we have to spend money to save money. If we invested in that infrastructure and really brought in the experts who knew how to make it all connect and work together, then what could we save with improved productivity, reduced manpower and enhanced agile development? What would happen if we finally took advantage of our previous investments?

Imagine the possibilities. Sometimes you have to spend a little to save a little. This might be the perfect time to take a close look at our aging infrastructure, storage, security and networks, and in some cases do a forklift upgrade—throw out old legacy gear we have cobbled together over the years and put the right infrastructure in place. Just imagine what would be possible. Imagine.