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Case Study: What customers want in this new year (part 1)

Heightened communication, standards, disaster recovery and virtualisation

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This is a two-part article. The second half will be published tomorrow.
Heightened communication, standards, disaster recovery and virtualisation are just a few of the areas IT managers are focused on as they chart their courses for the coming months. Purse strings are still tight, so products and services with big price tags are out. Instead, the themes in 2006 will be about increasing efficiency, tightening security and enhancing communication.
This wish list for 2006 was compiled from discussions with more than a dozen IT managers:
1. Security inside.
Security is a top issue for most IT managers, with some wanting a heightened focus on cybercrime and others bringing in open source tools to augment proprietary security approaches. Others are looking for devices that put security power into the guts of LAN switches to make security deployments easier. Jeff Crawford, manager of networking and security for a group of public schools, says vendors that offer multiple, single-purpose hardware devices for network services - whether it's security, telephony or management - should make the products they offer look more like a Swiss Army knife.
He has tested new gear that consolidates WAN routing, firewall, intrusion-prevention and intrusion-detection features into a single box - 3Com's X505 network devices.
Crawford says the Swiss Army knife approach undoubtedly will save money. He estimates he can eliminate clusters of gear that cost about $5,000 with such combination equipment.
2. Standards.
With more business being done electronically, the need to share information and services is on the rise. That kind of collaboration requires standards.
The auto industry, for example, is pushing for a standards-based method for sharing critical logistics documents electronically, so manufacturers and governments worldwide can more quickly and easily expedite freight. "A lot of products coming out today are built on proprietary ways of doing things," says Pat Snack, the General Motors executive who heads up the e-commerce committee of the Automotive Industry Action Group. "We need things that are standards-based."
Craig Paul, systems software analyst in the Applications Technology Group at the Kansas University Computer Center in Lawrence, says one of his big wishes for 2006 is to get local, county, state and national disease-reporting databases linked and integrated into a disease screening and reporting system, which will require a standard way of inputting and sharing data.
"The head of public health in nearby Kansas City repeatedly has stressed that by far the largest homeland security threat is a pandemic that's undetected in its early stages," Paul says. "The problem is twofold: uninsured people won't visit a doctor until they're desperately ill; by that time, the disease likely will have already spread. While there is some progress in linking [distributed] disease reporting databases, it's not nearly enough."
3. Cool servers
While servers are becoming increasingly powerful, end users are grappling with how to keep these faster running systems cool. "I can see a push for low-power AMD Opteron systems as cooling and power become more and more of a factor for an energy-conscious IT world," says Chris Schwerzler, IT operations manager at online weather service Weather Underground in San Francisco. "For that matter, I can see a growing demand for more-efficient yet cost-effective CPUs in general."
4. Faster, better disaster recovery.
With the Internet keeping business running around the clock, enterprises are under growing pressure to keep operations active 24/7. Boscov's Department Stores recently moved to a new data centre. Joe Poole, manager of technical support, says he hopes to use the "perfectly functional computer room" the move left behind to enhance the company's disaster-recovery plan in 2006.
"I would really love to be able to sell a twin disaster-recovery site to the business," Poole says, explaining that he would put another processor and another IBM Shark storage server in the computer room. "Production data could be mirrored synchronously. If we had a disaster, we could be back up in a matter of hours rather than days."
5. Virtualise virtually everything.
Server virtualisation continues to make headway, and analysts say it should really take off this year, especially as IT managers focus on consolidating hardware and boosting efficiencies. Jim Klein, director of information services and technology at the Saugus Union School District in California, has a lengthy to-do list for 2006, and virtualisation is at the top.
"We plan to consolidate the data centre at the district office and move to a fully virtualised environment through the use of blades, shared storage and open-source virtualisation software [Xen]," he says, adding that by summer he hopes to have eliminated two full racks of servers, "consolidating them into an efficient and scalable platform."
6. Better communication. If Jim Hite could have one wish in 2006, it would be better communication from the departments he serves at Virginia's Prince William County schools, where he is supervisor of network services and central operations.
"When that happens, we have a clearer objective" of what the departments want and need from his group, Hite says. "As a service provider, we provide a service. The better and clearer the other departments' objectives can be stated, the easier it is for us to respond."
It can be difficult for departments to express what they're looking for in terms of IT support, he says, particularly because people easily become intimidated when talking about technology. "It's an area where a lot of fear from other departments comes about, people don't want to seem silly or uninformed," he says. Over the years communication has gotten better, he says, but there's always room for improvement.
7. VoIP for consolidating operations. Bill Homa, senior vice president and CIO of Hannaford supermarkets, spent the last several years adding automation and virtualisation technologies to his data centre operations. One of the drivers for the work was server consolidation, because Hannaford was seeing just 10% utilisation on Intel servers. Now that data-centre operations are more cost effective, the next step will be looking at hardware in retail locations.
"We still have two servers in each store, and our goal is to get down to one and then to no servers needed in stores," Homa explains. Homa plans to reach this goal in 2006 using VoIP.
"For us, leveraging voice over IP is going to be big. VoIP is still relatively untouched as an application, not as a technology. Most people with VoIP just do voice, but there is the capability to have a telephone be a terminal, especially for those of us in the retail industry or any industry with many branch locations," Homa says. "It's a huge opportunity for us to have our phones become more than phones, to be IP devices and terminals. That would have a dramatic effect on the retail industry and help us reduce the servers needed in our store locations."
More tomorrow


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