Dr. J. Greg Hanson, U.S. Senate

May 2006
Dr. J. Greg Hanson, Assistant Sergeant at Arms and Chief Information Officer, U.S. Senate

Which emerging technology will have the biggest impact on your organization in the future?

These are exciting times in terms of technology at the U.S. Senate as we work to execute our information technology (IT) strategic plan. Having just implemented a comprehensive active directory and messaging architecture and entering the testing phase of a new services portal to bring business to the Web, we are poised for the next technology wave to have the biggest impact on the Senate—convergence communications technologies, including Internet protocol telephony (IPT).

“Just the way IT systems should seem to users—invisible but valuable.” This is a quote from one of my customers encapsulating his view about the office’s messaging system, and it is about as close to a compliment as a chief information officer (CIO) can expect. I’ve always said that being a CIO is like running the water company. Customers expect the water to run every time and to be crystal clear and potable. I’ve never written the water company a thank you letter for that; but if I go to the tap and no water comes out, that is a bona fide emergency. My customers—U.S. senators and their staffs, about 8,000 strong—expect their information systems to work effectively, securely and reliably.

The minimum requirements in my world are organizational excellence and quality solutions and services oriented squarely to the senators’ business needs. Additional challenges are presented by the highly decentralized nature of the institution, unique office-specific data custody/privacy concerns, our high security profile and the Senate’s desire for a state-of-the-art information infrastructure. Against this backdrop, my business drivers are to provide information technology solutions and services that enhance customer service/support and security. We constantly evaluate and work to leverage new and emerging technologies, but always with a view to improving customer service and satisfying business requirements—never for technology’s sake.

The new convergence communications solutions and services will eliminate bottlenecks and failure points, will enable multiple communication modes especially during emergencies and will address common business requirements across our diverse, decentralized customer base. Convergence communications technologies, including IPT, will provide new capabilities such as unified messaging, a multimedia framework for video applications, Web integration and improved telecommunications administration with reduced cost for moves, additions and changes.

Our move toward convergence of voice and data will place some stringent requirements on the candidate technologies. Specifically, the solutions must not contain components leading to a single failure point. They must provide at least the same functionality, reliability, security and quality of service as current voice services, including the existing adjunct systems and operational support systems. The bottom line is that my customers will not tolerate degradation in the quality or reliability of their current communications systems—voice or data.

In a converged world, voice will be more than an application on an IP network. Unlike a data application that may perform poorly if network congestion occurs, telephony is a service that is used for life and safety, and it can fail if network congestion impedes voice traffic. The notion of improving dial tone will be a hard sell with my customers, and I expect that organizational and cultural changes will take longer than deploying the technology.

There also will be a large educational component as IPT system administrators must learn another discipline (voice or data) before they can master the system. On-the-job training for administering and managing IPT while our customers depend on us creates an unacceptable level of risk. We have a lot of up-front work to do before we move to convergence.

To these ends, we have already created an integrated project management team with key individuals from both our voice and data network organizations. We also have assigned voice and data network staff to develop and execute a cross-training plan by the end of this fiscal year. For the past 18 months, we have been identifying and anticipating any network engineering changes that may be needed to support convergence, and we have upgraded our data network accordingly. With a stated goal of 99.999 percent network availability, we have begun to develop the change and configuration management processes as well as the assigned network engineering staff to develop a quality of service implementation plan.

Introducing any new or emerging technology brings a level of risk. In this case that risk is magnified as we look to replace an already excellent telecommunications system. Many technological challenges lie ahead. However, I believe the greatest challenge will be in getting our customers to understand that the increase in value is not incremental. As we work to introduce convergence technologies that surely will revolutionize the way we operate, the greatest challenges will be cultural as opposed to technical. I am excited about the prospects.