Steven Wright, Manager of Automation Equipment, U.S. Postal Service, is leaning into plug-and-play technology.

Oct 27 2022

Integrated Solutions Allow Agencies to Quickly Add Technology

USPS, DFC are among the agencies that have found the benefit of IT solutions that plug and play.

While federal agencies may have opted for more bespoke applications and equipment in the past, some are now finding that preconfigured, plug-and-play options can offer a number of operational benefits.

The adoption of ready-to-use technology indicates a shift within the industry toward an increasingly cloud- and service-based mindset. It also advances digital transformation efforts at a faster clip than agencies could on their own, according to Jonathan Alboum, federal CTO at ServiceNow.

“Historically, we had individual agencies and different missionaries building their own systems,” he says. “It’s a lot of work to create an infrastructure and manage all the hardware and software.

“As the federal government became more focused on data center consolidation concepts, some of those smaller IT operations were subsumed into larger enterprise operations at the department level or a governmentwide service provider,” he adds. “The focus moved toward, ‘What solutions are available to me?’”

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What Devices are Enhancing Informed Delivery?

In recent years, the United States Postal Service deployed about 280,000 Zebra TC77 touch computer devices to replace an end-of-life device that mail carriers used to scan packages once they’re delivered. In 2019, USPS distributed 75,000 of the handheld devices, with the remainder sent in 2020.

The new devices provided increased processing power that would support 4G network connectivity, says Amit Cholkar, USPS senior director of technology development. Scanned information from the devices is relayed via a cellular connection to the Postal Service’s internal tracking system, providing nearly real-time package status information to customers.

Choosing hardware that doesn’t need to be custom-built or excessively configured on the back end can reduce some of the delays involved in device deployment, according to Steve Wright, USPS manager of automation equipment.

DIVE DEEPER: How to keep mobile technologies safe with adaptive protection and device control.

“You’re cutting out a ton of design effort,” he says. “If you’re coming in with a set of requirements for a supplier to build you something more or less from scratch and that’s specialized in terms of hardware, that’s going to take many months — maybe even years, depending on how complex it is. Any system where you can grab something that’s already made is going to save significant time.”

The Android operating system used by Zebra devices helped employees, who had experience with the system’s touchscreen and other basic user interface aspects, quickly adjust to using the scanners, Wright says.

“Whenever you have a device that’s more or less familiar to some folks — an Android phone, for example — it’s going to be helpful,” he says. “So, even though the device itself requires special training on things like how to press buttons and turn them off, that’s picked up pretty quickly because it’s very similar to things that are out in the field today.”

Steve Wright
Any system where you can grab something that’s already made is going to save significant time.”

Steve Wright Manager of Automation Equipment, U.S. Postal Service

How Preconfigured Tech Is Supporting Agencies

Other federal agencies have also turned to preconfigured tech to address their needs. Among these agencies is the Northeastern Tribal Health System, the Oklahoma-based healthcare provider operated by eight tribal nations, which serves patients from four states.

NTHS’ legacy network-related issues involved multiple dropped connections daily, which made electronic health records inaccessible and forced the IT staff to spend a third of its time troubleshooting. Those problems were alleviated by implementing Aruba ESP network components. These included the 6400 Switch Series, the 3810 Switch Series to supply edge access, the 5400R Switch Series for aggregation and 530 Series indoor access points.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, responsible for robotic space exploration research and development, has used the Bright Cluster Manager high-performance computing solution from NVIDIA to control from a single interface the main and satellite locations of a clustered environment it deployed in 2019. That was used to create the 2020 Mars mission’s trajectory and entry descent landing calculations.

Centralized operation can be a significant selling point for plug-and-play technology adoption.

“Simplicity is a driver for a lot of things we do,” Alboum says. “The quest for less complexity and for not having to spend more engineering time on something is very, very attractive.”

DISCOVER: Why federal agencies should consider managed service providers.

Maximizing Capabilities with Cloud-Based Solutions

The U.S. International Development Finance Corporation has an extensive scope that encompasses multiple initiatives and locations. It was formed in 2019 as a successor to a federal development-focused finance institution and an agency that generated economic opportunities by providing financial service access in underserved sectors. Specifically, DFC partners with private sector entities to invest in solutions and arrange financing for businesses in emerging markets.

To maximize DFC’s network and edge device management capabilities, the agency chose a cloud-based, single-pane-of-glass console.

DFC implemented Aruba Central in 2021, according to DFC spokesperson Pooja Jhunjhunwala. The FedRAMP-certified solution offers artificial intelligence-produced analytics and other elements to assist with network troubleshooting, monitoring and optimization.

“The U.S. International Development Finance Corporation’s Office of Information Technology provides reliable and innovative IT solutions to the agency,” Jhunjhunwala says. “DFC’s overall goal was to improve security through traffic segregation and access control, with a scalable and more customized configuration.”

Since adding the Aruba platform, the agency finds its features provide greater consistency, unified configuration and easier management controls, and it has helped facilitate reporting efforts, Jhunjhunwala says.

$60 billion

The projected amount of U.S. federal government spending on external IT services by 2025

Source: Gartner, “Fiscal Year 2022: 10 High-Value IT Services Opportunities in U.S. Federal Government,” December 2021

How New Devices and Software Enhance the User Experience

In addition to the handheld Zebra devices that help log delivered packages, the Postal Service has adopted other integrated solutions that are essentially ready to use after purchase. This includes back-office package processing system elements such as a Wi-Fi-enabled overhead scanner.

Housed onsite, the scanner can register a package after it’s unloaded from a truck at a delivery unit.

“When mail comes through, somebody would just place a package underneath the scanner,” Cholkar says. “It will look at the information on the package, decipher that and provide what route that particular package belongs to. It would be sorted to that specific route, and then the carrier can take that package for delivery.”

After distribution, scanning devices are particularly well suited for a fast integration, without the recipients having to make major tweaks, Cholkar says.

“It’s predominantly a small system with software that can be loaded either remotely or before it goes out,” he says. “I can’t do that with big machines; it’s a completely different process because you have to install the thing onsite. When we send technology out, we want it to be plug-and-play as much as we can, so sites can immediately start using them.”

EXPLORE: How IT service management tools increase efficiencies for federal agencies.

That level of convenience can also help facilitate end users’ acceptance and continued use of new technology.

“The expectation, unless something goes wrong in transit, is that the devices are in a position where they will work when turned on,” Cholkar says. “When we give them technology, it’s good to go. We want to make their jobs easy so they can focus on our customers.”

Relatively painless implementation, however, isn’t the only advantage of plug-and-play equipment. Ongoing maintenance can potentially be simplified if federal agencies choose a ready-to-use product, according to Wright.

“You have a built-in supplier that knows how their system works and operates,” he says. “That’s a different approach than to go to some other company, have them design something specific for you and try to work out all of the bugs and issues before you deploy. You have something that’s already been tested in the field for different customers, and the company can support it upon deployment.”

T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

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