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Technology testers

News Analysis
Aug 16, 20045 mins
Cellular NetworksIT SkillsLinux

Special IT teams evaluate new technology, determine business benefits of deployment.

Changing passwords, swapping out bad hardware and answering users’ dumb questions are all part of being in IT. But often the reward for time in the tech trenches is a spot in a corporation’s technology evaluation group.

Keeping up with the latest and greatest IT products can be daunting. Some IT shops in large organizations set up subgroups to evaluate new products and determine the business value they might bring. Other big firms assemble IT teams to test products in a specific category, such as security or open source. Smaller shops also may rely on a technology evaluator to separate the wheat from the chaff.

At package-delivery giant UPS, a separate Advanced Technology Group consists of about a dozen people who evaluate new hardware and software on a technical level and business-case perspective.

“We’re looking out on an ongoing basis for new technology,” says John Nallin, vice president of information services, global network systems and technology infrastructure at UPS in Atlanta. Key vendors visit several times per year to lay out their product road maps.

Most technology plans formed inside UPS come from needs of the business units, which dispatch liaisons. When a problem is identified, IT finds a technical solution.

The Advanced Technology Group is also proactive, with members looking out on their own for new technologies that might help the company. When someone in the group identifies a potentially useful new product, an evaluation is set up, which usually lasts four to eight weeks. During this time, the hardware or software is tested as it would be used in real-world deployment. If the product has technical merit, the group considers whether it would be cost-effective to deploy and the ROI.

At this stage, “we’re looking into everything that is required – how many locations would need this technology, what that would cost,” Nallin says. “Understanding the cost is very important in technology evaluation.”

The team has found some great products that have reduced UPS’ costs and boosted productivity, but there have been some misses, too.

Nallin points to a compression technology that was deployed in the company’s data center a few years ago. “It ended up costing more to run the compression than it would have to just buy more [storage],” he says. “We lost some money on that.”

Wireless has been one of the Advanced Technology Group’s grand slams. “All the wireless stuff has been a huge success,” Nallin says, referring to successful implementations of cellular and 802.11 wireless for tracking applications, and wireless devices that UPS delivery drivers use. “It’s the differentiator, and it’s something we’ve been pioneering for a while. [Wireless] is one of those technologies that we’ll continue to tweak, and each time it will give us something more than last time.”

At Hold Brothers On-Line Investment Services, new technology is essential to the small stock trading firm’s survival. The New York company uses advanced trading software and a strong network infrastructure to remain competitive with behemoths such as Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch.

Chris Lukas kept the firm on the IT forefront in his former position as CTO for emerging technologies at Hold Brothers. “If there is going to be a position such as mine at a company, the company has to either be very receptive to new technology or in a start-up building mode,” Lukas says.

Lukas says that when he worked for Hold Brothers the firm actively sought new technology, a refreshing change from past employers.

“With this industry being the fastest-changing industry of all, you would think that there would be more people receptive to new technology,” Lukas says.

Some of the largest companies have the luxury of targeting certain technologies that might have business value and assigning evaluators to track that specific area.

One U.S. auto manufacturer runs an Advanced Technologies Research Group, which has a department of people looking at Linux and open source applications to save money and replace proprietary systems.

“Being in the Advanced Technology Research Group gives me leeway to do things that are not normally allowed,” says a systems engineer at the automaker who wishes to remain anonymous. This engineer focuses on researching open source alternatives to mail, file and print serving. “I have my own Linux desktop, and I run a dozen servers of ‘non-authorized’ types in the lab.”

At another large company, a Linux-focused technology exploration group has evolved into a full-fledged IT support and development group. “Linux is one of those technologies that provides that proverbial blank white sheet of paper,” says Tim Golden, director of Linux design and engineering at Bank of America in Charlotte, N.C. While initially established as an exploratory group, his team now distributes packaged Linux and open source hardware/software bundles for various business units and offices throughout the company. The group is also the lead IT team for evaluating and testing how applications running on the bank’s proprietary Unix platforms would port over to Linux/Intel platforms.

“We’ve had applications running a 70% load that we migrated to Linux [servers] in a lab and found that we could put an additional nine applications on [the box] once we were in production,” Golden says.