Dec 31 2009

Wireless Devices Bring New Meaning to Asset Management

The freedom that wireless devices convey attracts users, but that same mobility can undermine security and planning.

"IT asset management is a basic. You have to know what comprises your architecture before you can optimize it or incorporate new technologies."
— OMB's Richard Burk

Pocket-sized, ubiquitous and almost completely unmanaged, mobile and wireless devices permeate every level of the federal government.

With few established best practices for managing these devices, information technology managers are on their own in securing and updating IT policies and asset management systems. IT chiefs must deliver inventory, licensing and infrastructure data along with the financial, performance and systems security information needed to meet the goals of the President's Management Agenda, while also working toward the common systems and interoperability required by the Federal Enterprise Architecture.

Meanwhile, the move toward increased use of mobile and wireless devices has become a flood. By 2007 or 2008, "65 percent of enterprises will have wireless applications deployed, with mobile devices outnumbering traditional PCs," according to Meta Group of Stamford, Conn.

On the Upswing

That growth in use of mobile and wireless devices is reflected in agency spending. In fiscal 2005, the government spent about $1.9 billion on wireless telecommunications; it expects to spend about $2.2 billion this year. By 2010 federal wireless telecom spending will hit $3.3 billion, according to forecasts by IT research firm Input of Reston, Va.

In its May 2002 survey on the status of technology and digitization in the nation's museums and libraries, the Institute of Museum and Library Services found only 9 percent of the surveyed museums and libraries using personal digital assistants. Results of its 2004 survey show their use nearly doubling to 17.4 percent, says Mary Downs, an IMLS research officer.

But the greater increase appears to be in hybrid devices. Police in the Southern District of Florida, for example, use PDA-phones to wirelessly write reports, query databases and keep schedules up to date.

Of the 3 million-plus BlackBerry users, an estimated 10 percent are government workers. That sounds about right to Richard Burk, chief architect of the Federal Enterprise Architecture at the Office of Management and Budget: "Just judging from how many people I see in meetings doing the BlackBerry prayer — that's where their heads go down and their hands come together to cover their BlackBerry while they surreptitiously check their messages."

Wireless devices played a key role in virtually every aspect of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. When the storm closed 85 Agriculture Department service centers and four Agriculture Research Service field sites, the USDA's Office of the CIO immediately sent BlackBerrys, notebook PCs with wireless cards and satellite phones to the area.

"I think wireless and mobile devices are viewed as an essential today," says Alan Balutis, president and CEO of government strategies at Input. "And I think government and the private sector would be hard pressed to carry on business without them."

One attraction of the devices is their price tag. They're inexpensive enough that their purchase has been able to fly under the radar of many acquisition officers.

It was about a year ago that the Veterans Affairs Department detected a blip on its screen. The Office of Information and Technology traced degradation in the department's Microsoft Exchange e-mail performance to the huge number of BlackBerrys in use. VA's response was to immediately set a policy on who should get BlackBerrys, says VA spokesperson Josephine Schuda.

"Guidelines encouraged managers to be prudent," Schuda says. "But there had been no practical way, up to now, for OI&T, a staff office, to police decisions on who is issued one." Over the last year, she says, BlackBerry growth at VA has leveled off.

Agencies are developing tools to help with asset management of the government's growing arsenal of portable devices. The Federal Real Property Council, created by executive order in February 2004, recently formed the Systems Committee and tapped Agriculture as the lead agency to handle IT issues related to making sure agencies improve asset management.

At USDA, Associate CIO for Information Resources Management Gregory Parham has taken on the project, in concert with the IT Management Advisory Council, to examine government and industry IT asset management practices and to develop an integrated approach for managing IT assets.

Can You Hear Me Now?

IT managers at VA have set policies to keep track of mobile and wireless devices, VA's Schuda says. For example, "the requesting office that buys the equipment is responsible for entering the equipment in the VA inventory system," she says.

"IT asset management covers such a big territory," OMB's Burk says. "And it's handled differently not just within an agency but in how you track different devices and how they're used. I don't think there is one way you could track all of them."

There's more to it than just knowing what portable assets an agency has and to whom they've been assigned, says Input's Balutis, former deputy CIO and director of budget, management and information at the Commerce Department.

"I think the big challenge is how to secure communications on these devices, and we're looking to industry and technology to provide solutions," Balutis says. "In the interim, the government is swimming upstream trying to exercise controls and restrictions on their use."

Embarrassing disclosures in the press about agencies' laxness in wireless security have caused federal IT managers to expand their efforts, Balutis believes.

At OMB, "our BlackBerrys require that you enter an ID to use them," Burk says. "But further, you have to get reauthorization every five minutes. So if you were to lose the device, it wouldn't remain logged in.

"Sometimes that's a little difficult if you're using one of the BlackBerrys that's also a phone, but the security has to be there."

Security, one of several concerns in managing conventional IT assets, "must be the top concern for mobile devices," adds Richard Whitehead, product marketing director for Novell's ZENworks IT asset management software.

Credant Technologies of Dallas in November won Federal Information Processing Standards 140-2 for a common cryptographic module running on the Palm operating system.

And security is at the heart of the Novell mobile management software, Whitehead says.

"With ZENworks Handheld Management, handheld users must be authenticated before they can use the device, just as with a PC," he says. "And just as with a PC, if you don't get the sign-in right within a prescribed number of tries, we can lock you out. If the device — whether it's a BlackBerry or a Palm or some kind of Smartphone — is lost or stolen, we can remotely wipe the applications and the data clean. We can return it to factory reset."

"IT asset management is a basic," OMB's Burk says. "You have to know what comprises your architecture before you can optimize it or incorporate new technologies. And it's going to be important as we transition to Internet Protocol Version 6."

Ring Up Savings

Agencies "that systematically manage the lifecycles of their IT assets will reduce cost per asset by as much as 30 percent in the first year and between 5 percent and 10 percent annually in the next five years," adds Frances O'Brien, IT asset management analyst at Gartner of Stamford, Conn.

As the number of users and applications for mobile and wireless devices at agencies has grown, so has IT managers' awareness of the challenges of managing them.

At VA today, "the requesting office that buys the equipment is responsible for entering the equipment in the VA inventory system," Schuda says. "And a recently announced reorganization of VA's IT operations will bring the control of purchases of such infrastructure components in VA under the CIO."