Mar 30 2010

Enterprise Mobility

Federal IT organizations begin embracing handheld devices as desktops within the enterprise.

It’s time for federal IT organizations to face a fact: Any mobile device is really just another desktop in the enterprise.

The big question, adds ATF CIO Richard Holgate, is: How do you support that across the enterprise?

That there’s no longer a clear-cut distinction between traditional desktop gear and handheld devices is a view held not only by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, but also by the Internal Revenue Service. Both agencies have several thousand highly mobile workers.

The IRS is replacing desktop systems with notebook computers even for employees who work mainly in offices, says Chief Information Security Officer David Stender, who spoke along with Holgate during a panel at the recent FOSE trade show in Washington, D.C.

“Our goal is to make the mobile end-user device the new desktop,” says Stender, because IRS users are doing more and more of their work on handhelds and using their notebooks mainly for data-heavy work.

He sees three challenges: bandwidth, power and policy (or making sure users understand how things are supposed to work in a mobile enterprise).

Security is really not a problem, according to Stender. There’s enough capability in current technologies to cover the security requirements of most users, he says.

To help with user adoption, the IRS has taken the approach of saying to users, “You tell us the kind of device that you want to use, and we’ll figure out how to use it,” says Stender.  He knows “that’s a big stretch” for government, but he’s adamant. “Hey, we’re the IRS, we’re as bureaucratic as they come, and we’re trying to do this.”

Long Sight Line

Meanwhile, at ATF, the IT team has been running a handheld Windows Mobile pilot with about 150 users in the agency.

The Justice Department agency already has a mobile focus when it comes to technology and a workforce that teleworks heavily, says Holgate. With 6,800 users, ATF has fielded 6,500 notebooks, 3,100 cellular devices and 1,500 BlackBerrys, in addition to the Windows Mobile phones.

The ultimate strategy is to deploy extremely mobile devices (think smartphones) that let users interact with the services and data behind the ATF firewall. “This is very much a work in progress,” says Holgate. First, “we are at least trying to get the user-device part of this infrastructure solved.”

That’s what has driven the Windows Mobile pilot. The chief desired function turns on supporting video management services on handhelds — essentially, giving agents in the field the ability to access and control IP surveillance cameras and images using mobile devices.

When it launched its pilot at the end of last year, ATF set some baseline requirements, Holgate says. A device, at minimum, had to be able to:

  • encrypt in transit;
  • encrypt at rest;
  • allow remote enterprise device management;
  • integrate with existing network security capabilities; and
  • allow for remote kill and erase.

Most agencies are pretty good now at doing these things on notebooks, Holgate says. The challenge comes in figuring out how “we extend this type of capability to less traditional mobile devices.”

For ATF, there’s time to test and tweak the options to determine the best approach. The agency only recently refreshed its notebook systems and so won’t be pushing those aside any time soon in favor an enterprisewide deployment of smaller devices, Holgate says.

“Ultimately, we want to change the demographic of devices to one that’s more lightweight and more affordable and sustainable.”