IT Playbook: Core Technologies

Deemed critical by IT leaders, network security, storage and wireless will take center stage in 2005.

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Network-centric projects are bubbling to the top of Premier 100 IT Leaders' to-do lists for 2005.

Legislative mandates and e-business growth are among the factors causing data volumes to multiply, fueling storage-area networking (SAN) initiatives.

Meanwhile, wireless networks are ramping up quickly. In addition to enhancing worker mobility, wireless will team with the latest sensor, location-tracking and scanning technologies in 2005 to help organizations glean as-yet-untapped automation benefits. Underlying these projects is a redoubling of efforts surrounding network security.

Here's how IT leaders are juggling those priorities and leveraging three key technologies.

Security: Locking Down the Network

Because more devices now touch the public Internet, where infections and hackers lurk, IT departments are focused on enforcing "endpoint security." This is the discipline of forcing client-device compliance with corporate policy about software updates, versions and patches before allowing network access. A primary goal is to staunch the spread of viruses and denial-of-service attacks.

"Network threats are increasingly faster-moving and more malicious," says Lancelot Michael Braunstein, executive director at New York-based financial services firm Morgan Stanley. "The thinking is that the trend will only move more in this direction. This keeps people like me up at night."

Dale N. Frantz, CIO at Auto Warehousing Co.
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Dale N. Frantz, CIO at Auto Warehousing Co.

Image Credit: Brian Smale
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Dave Passmore, research director at Burton Group in Midvale, Utah, concurs. "Networking is a double-edged sword," he says. "Networks are the big enabler, but they also enable bad guys and malware. Access to the public Internet for employees, partners and customers is now a necessity, leaving enterprises feeling vulnerable."

Such paranoia is hardly misguided. Frank J. Trogus, CIO at Shell Oil Products US and Motiva Enterprises LLC in Houston, for example, estimates that one in every 25 to 30 e-mails that crosses his company's firewall contains a virus. "So we're embarking on a holistic approach to security," he says. The initiative includes endpoint compliance and host-based intrusion and spyware protection.

Storage: Legislation Spurs Efficiency

Legislative mandates such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act are having not only security but also storage implications. As part of their scope, the laws govern conduct over record retention, so companies need a structured yet flexible approach to storage (not to mention more of it).

"There's no question that the current regulatory environment requires you to save more data," says Julie St. John, executive vice president and CIO at Washington-based Fannie Mae, the nation's largest provider of funds for home mortgages.

She expects near-term maturation of storage virtualization, which is the ability to manage a SAN from a single console as though it were one storage device.

"Sarbanes-Oxley rules about how information has to be classified, how accessible it is and how long you must keep it mean the industry will soon demand this capability," she predicts.

Meanwhile, Fannie Mae -- which St. John describes as an "unabashed data hog," with 420TB of data stored -- has moved from a Fibre Channel-based SAN to a TCP/IP-based one. The move has given the organization the freedom to replicate among vendors' storage arrays and more-efficient disk utilization, St. John says.

Advances in storage efficiency remain high on Fannie Mae's priority list, as data volumes continue to swell. A key driver has been the company's mandate to become totally Web-enabled, an initiative that St. John says pushed online transactions from $450 billion in 1999 to $2 trillion in 2003.

At Morgan Stanley, Common Internet File System storage appliances are being rolled out in the firm's branch offices. CIFS appliances are proxies that extend file service from a SAN in the data center but behave like a local file server. The goal is to deliver better performance at lower costs in the branches, says Braunstein.

The proxy provides a local cache that writes to a centralized SAN infrastructure. To the user, the write takes place locally, so latency is fairly low. "But the system is managed centrally, delivering significant economies of administration," he explains.

One particular challenge in the coming year for the brokerage firm will be giving meaning to reams of security log data, which are starting to consume megabytes of storage, Braunstein says.

"We hope to create a smarter information system around that data using security information management tools," he says. SIM tools automate the collection of event log data and help administrators make sense of it to find actual network threats.

Wireless: Speeding inventory control

Security has been a notoriously prominent issue in wireless networking, too. Still, the benefits of wireless are driving creative applications as the latest sensor, location-tracking and scanning technologies use wireless networks to open doors to automation.

At Tacoma, Wash.-based Auto Warehousing Co., North America's largest automobile processing company, CIO Dale N. Frantz is poised to port a highly successful 802.11b wireless LAN application he has used for inventorying and transferring vehicles to other sites.

Auto Warehousing imports 3 million to 4 million new Korean and Japanese cars each year, Frantz says. Its primary job is to add the customer-requested options to the cars and perform the final quality-control checks before shipping the vehicles to dealerships. The company processes 2,000 cars a day out of a daily inventory of about 20,000 to 25,000 vehicles, which are parked in vast storage lots.

"Just finding a particular vehicle was a fair challenge 18 months ago," Frantz says. At that time, car-locator personnel used a combination of dumb handheld scanners with no communications capabilities and a printed history of car locations to manually find cars by their vehicle identification numbers (VIN).

However, when a $40 million processing facility was built in Tacoma, 802.11b WLANs were figured into the equation, says Frantz, including deployment in the parking lots. Now, intelligent Pocket PCs used by the car locators communicate directly with a VIN database wirelessly to find an instant electronic match.

"Workers can quickly find vehicles and drive them right in," he says.

The inventory-scanning application led to a vehicle flow-point application, also based on scanning, to prevent drivers from parking cars in the wrong location and causing delays. The flow-point application, along with an 802.11-based tablet-PC-based quality-control inspection application, replaced error-prone, paper-based processes.

Frantz estimates that misparked vehicles have dropped to less than 1% of the number of vehicles the site handles, down from about 8.5%, and the size of the car-locator staff has been reduced from 20 to four in Tacoma.

At BP PLC, low-cost wireless sensors have the potential to revolutionize many of the oil and gas company's business processes, says Phiroz P. Darukhanavala, vice president and chief technology officer. He says the company has about a dozen projects that combine advances in sensors, telemetry and wireless telecommunications.

Sensor technology in a device called a mote is opening doors to stronger and more cost-efficient equipment maintenance, Darukhanavala says. A mote is a self-contained device with a processor, memory, collection of sensors, battery and telecommunications operating system with mesh networking capabilities.

Because motes don't require cabling for power or communications, they are inexpensive and more easily mounted in challenging environments - such as on vibrating compressors, pumps and fans on BP's oil tankers and in its refineries and chemical plants. "As such, they could be used to take and communicate timely readings of measurements for improved equipment maintenance," says Darukhanavala. "We'd avoid both catastrophic failures and unnecessary maintenance."

And like other top suppliers to Wal-Mart Stores Inc., BP has been involved in a mandate to affix radio frequency identification tags with embedded electronic product codes to its crates and pallets. RFID enables the scanning of product data and transmission over wireless networks to improve supply chain management.

The RFID revolution is expected to largely get off the ground this year; Wal-Mart has said it will need 1 billion RFID tags in 2005 to support its use of the technology.

Wexler is a freelance writer in California's Silicon Valley. Contact her at joanie@jwexler.com.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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