Tech tonic for '09

Obama administration can use strong IT policies as elixir for nation’s biggest troubles

Obama administration must forge policies for green IT, cloud computing and high-tech R&D for addressing industry challenges such as cybersecurity and cybercrimes.

Tech policy

When Barack Obama takes his seat behind the Oval Office's historic Resolute desk, the economic crisis clearly will be his top priority. But as the tech-savvy politician surely knows, he'll only get so far without strong IT-related legislation and action.

"When you look at the economic anxieties we're facing, we definitely are going to need new growth opportunities. We can take the lead on creating 'green' jobs, as well as renewing our commitment to cutting-edge research, and information technology is a critical part of this strategy," says Bruce Mehlman, co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance, a coalition of business and nonprofit organizations.

From the get-go, Obama must set an agenda that encourages and rewards green IT initiatives, signals the maturity and security of cloud computing while easing privacy concerns, and significantly increases investments in R&D to combat cybercrime and discover next-generation Internet tools. Such an agenda should ensure IT's endorsement of his plans.

Green means go

President-elect Obama has vowed to invest $150 billion over the next 10 years to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil and promote alternative energy sources. He has earmarked the money in part for clean-energy research and a new venture fund aimed at moving viable projects to commercial markets. According to his campaign technology policy, he hopes this cash influx, as well as industry innovation, will improve energy efficiency 50% by 2030.

The government and IT sector will need to dig deep to achieve this, says Betsy Mullins, vice president for government and political affairs at TechNet, a bipartisan political network of senior executives. "It's generally assumed that energy efficiency gets you 40% of the way to meeting greenhouse goals. To achieve that kind of efficiency, you're going to need IT's input on everything from ensuring that company computers go into a deeper sleep mode, to virtualization, to completely reconfiguring data centers." (Read more on IT energy efficiency in "Data-center power: The cost reality.)

Green IT already has proved it makes economic output more eco-friendly by a factor of 10 to 1, according to a 2008 study from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. With data centers being among the largest consumers of energy in the United States, IT executives at major enterprises will have to be brought to the table to identify, test and deploy cutting-edge alternative energy and power-reduction technologies.

Government organizations could provide fertile testing grounds for a number of green IT initiatives, Mullins says. "If the government becomes an early adopter of alternative fuels and energy-saving technology, then it'll drive down the cost for the private sector and signal this is something to be comfortable with." (Read about three emerging technologies that could help ease the data-center problem in the future.)

Obama also should focus on longer-term energy tax credits that enable companies to plan for intensive and potentially costly projects, such as solar-powered buildings for their data centers. "If you ensure that the energy tax credits extend out eight years, companies can make these types of IT budget plans confidently," Mullins says.

As president, Obama will have to walk a fine line between creating incentives and over-regulating. He'll also have to make sure that current programs, such as the Department of Energy's and Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star plan that rewards the use of power-saving technology, work in tandem - not conflict - with newer initiatives. Obama should tap the federal CTO he has called for to take on this cross-agency oversight.

"The administration shouldn't be too prescriptive. Instead, frameworks should be holistic and allow for dynamic innovation, not become a disincentive," says Patty Calkins, vice president of environment, health and safety at Xerox.

Calkins points, for instance, to a technology project at Xerox involving paper reuse that might run counter to traditional energy-reduction thinking. "We're creating a printer where paper can be reused 50 to 60 times. Now, that may mean it consumes a little more energy than traditional laser printers, but it'll save overall on paper manufacturing," she says.

The focus should not be solely on technology, but also on business processes overall, Calkins says. For example, many businesses overprovision individual printing devices for their organizations: "On average, these devices are used only 2% of the time, but are left drawing power 98% of the time. If you replace those with shared, multifunction machines, you can drive down energy consumption and overall manufacturing," she says.

Calkins encourages the Obama administration to do that kind of soul-searching throughout the government, then share its findings publicly to encourage non-government IT teams to do the same.

Into the cloud

As IT budgets continue to tighten in the wake of the economic meltdown, interest has intensified in software-as-a-service and cloud-computing initiatives. Many IT organizations, including those in government, see the positives of these movements, including the immediate elimination of such costs as hardware, software and facilities; and the ability to roll out new applications and storage quickly. The idea of housing data in the cloud, however, raises widespread security and privacy issues.

"The biggest issue around cloud computing is government access to that information. Companies and users want to know what constitutional protections apply to them as information moves into the cloud," says Ari Schwartz, COO for the Center for Democracy and Technology. "There is a concern that there are fewer protections surrounding civil subpoenas and the like for information if it is stored off-site."

Remedying this situation could be as simple as the Obama administration working with Congress to extend the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 to information stored in the cloud. "This is similar to what we faced with e-mail. We created a new set of laws that addressed government access and civil subpoenas," Schwartz says.

On the other hand, it could be more cumbersome.

"We definitely need to 'cyber-hyphen' a lot of our laws because they haven't been updated to include Internet crimes," says Brian Contos, CSO at security-software maker ArcSight.

Network World columnist Scott Bradner is more explicit. The Obama administration should "require that law enforcement at all levels follows proper constitutional processes when obtaining information about individuals. There should be criminal penalties for individuals who fail to follow proper procedures and for any organization that assists them," he said in a recent column.

Even cloud-computing companies agree the government has to calm fears about privacy intrusion for the market to hit its full potential.

"There is an onus on government to indicate that it is not going to go on blanket searches without cause or purpose and it won't randomly look at data stored in the cloud. Citizens also should have reasonable expectations of due process when the government does look at data," says Daniel Burton, senior vice president of global public policy at

Equally important as legislation, however, are the signals the Obama administration sends to the market. The government, which faces the triple whammy of aging applications, slashed infrastructure budgets and a slimmed-down IT workforce, should lead by example. "The best thing [government agencies] can do is adopt cloud computing themselves and show it's a safe tonic for productivity and cost cutting," Burton says.

R&D spree

Lastly, the Obama administration must loosen the purse strings on high-tech R&D to advance cybersecurity, the next-generation Internet and other mission-critical infrastructure work.

"Funding to secure the networks supporting our critical infrastructure has definitely lacked in recent years, yet it's this critical infrastructure that is becoming a prime target for criminals and terrorists because of the rapid damage a breach can cause. The old technology, running things that essentially keep the country's lights on, was not designed to operate in the age of cybercrime we see today. These are extremely vulnerable, legacy environments," ArcSight's Contos says.

Researchers must find a way to integrate IT systems and processes better with their associated critical infrastructure, Burton says. For example, they've got to find a way to integrate advanced controls and cyber-security devices with the electric grid, as well as better monitor and respond to threats to oil and gas control-system networks.

While some government, academia and industry leaders have gathered to solve these challenges, the efforts have been piecemeal. The incoming administration, whether through the new CTO's office, the Department of Homeland Security or other agency, needs to lead and fund concerted and coordinated efforts, Contos says.

The Obama administration also can help further cybercrime research by gathering corporate IT security teams for roundtables on their biggest challenges. "We see strides when peers in industries such as banking, oil and gas feel safe to meet and discuss security in an open fashion. The government facilitating that kind of discussion makes sense," Contos says.

Contos also advocates government funding of the myriad, advanced security projects happening in universities across the country. "These are the people still doing research for the sake of research, and there is some incredible, cutting-edge global collaboration as a result," he says. Some universities, he adds, already are dedicating significant resources to preventing cyberattacks.(View a slide show of 10 really cool university networking labs.)

One inhibitor to "research for the sake of research" in the private sector has been the government's waffling on the Research and Experimentation Tax Credit, which Congress has let expire and renewed a dozen times since its inception in 1981. For companies to feel secure green-lighting longer-term projects, the government must make the tax credit permanent - a sentiment Obama shared during his candidacy.

As a final R&D initiative, the new administration must channel significant dollars into all levels of education in science and mathematics. This would ensure a new generation of technologically innovative workers. Many feel the more highly skilled tech labor we generate at home, the less we'll need the controversial H-1B visa program to bring in foreign workers from abroad.

Two more tech watch points

Net neutrality. Make sure the Internet remains a neutral playing ground by creating federal regulations that require carriers to treat all content equally.

Universal broadband. Before tapping into the Universal Service Fund to extend broadband to everyone, conduct a survey to see what parts of the country still need access. Then determine which approach - wired or wireline - best meets those needs. Also seek out partnerships with the private sector to avoid public cost.

Gittlen, a freelance technology writer in the Greater Boston area, can be reached at

< Previous story: 10 tech people you should know | Return to main page: Outlook ‘09 >

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

The 10 most powerful companies in enterprise networking 2022