IT execs offer advice for Obama technology policy

It's not just the start of a new year—soon there will also be a new president in office. Storage vendors, analysts and users offer their advice to the new administration.

As 2009 looms and a new president prepares to take office, storage executives are pondering national technology policy initiatives that will come about as a result of the new administration.

Storage industry experts have some advice for the new national chief technology officer (CTO) that President-elect Barack Obama has said he will appoint. Their suggestions include building up the Internet infrastructure, modernizing digital record keeping and helping the U.S. workforce adapt through better technology education.

The Obama proposals

A document posted by Obama on his website during his presidential campaign outlines proposals for major policy initiatives. They include a free and open public Internet with a better network infrastructure to reach underserved areas, digitization and online availability of government and healthcare records, and a national wireless network to improve public safety.

The incoming president has also said he will appoint a national CTO, but has yet to fill the position. "The CTO will ensure the safety of our networks and will lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices," reads the web document. The CTO will also focus on the national emergency network and making government e-records available.

Experts weigh-in on Internet accessibility and neutrality

The issue of Internet neutrality—whether or not the private companies that built the current infrastructure have the right to prioritize certain traffic over others—is already the subject of debate in this country. However, visitors to another website called obamacto.org overwhelmingly voted "ensure the Internet is widely accessible and network neutral" as their top choice for the new CTO's No. 1 priority.

Tech experts favor strengthening and extending the nation's networking infrastructure. Jeff Nick, CTO at EMC Corp., says broadband extension is needed at "the edge, like rural areas, where there isn't a consistent infrastructure."

We need to embrace a technology-centric economy or we're guaranteed to never make any progress out of this recession.
Karl Lews
storage administrator,   University of Michigan College of Engineering
ReiJane Huai, CEO at FalconStor Software Inc., says the government should take more control over Internet networks, likening them to highway infrastructure. "You lay the highway first then you set up tollbooths to recover the costs," he says. "The government has to take leadership, and the taxpayer has to have foresight to suffer, maybe, for the next year or two to benefit the next 20 years and for our children."

Experts warn that the U.S. has fallen behind other countries in these types of initiatives. "The U.S. has always been the technology leader in the world—from what I've read, we're not even in the Top 10 anymore in terms of broadband infrastructure. We're falling behind," says EMC's Nick.

Government and healthcare digitization

The private sector has been heavily focused on archiving and management of business records over the last two years, yet it hasn't really devised a solution to data proliferation. By comparison, the government has even more work to do to make records electronically accessible and to promote transparency in federal agencies. Experts identified this, as well as similar records management for healthcare, as among the most crucial tasks facing the new administration.

"We're absolutely archaic in terms of how we deal with personal information in the private sectors and certainly in respect to programs of national interest," says Nick. "The real challenge will be the ability to relate 'Who am I?' with 'What am I?' so doctors can figure out 'How am I?'. Master data management is all about identity recognition across heterogeneous sources of information."

American competitiveness

Making the U.S. more competitive with other technologically advanced countries is another big issue among U.S. IT professionals. The need to remake the American workforce through improved education is high on the list of proposed solutions.

"As an employer, I can't find enough skilled workers in this country sometimes. Encouraging research and education should be fundamental areas of focus," says Praveen Asthana, director of enterprise storage at Dell Inc.

"I think one of the key technology issues the new administration must face is unemployment," says Karl Lewis, storage administrator at the University of Michigan's College of Engineering. "We need to embrace a technology-centric economy or we're guaranteed to never make any progress out of this recession."

Experts also encourage the government to foster more primary research using higher education. "One of the most effective ways for the government to help industries develop new technology is to aggressively fund consortiums of universities, [and] small and large companies," says Mark Re, Seagate Technology's senior vice president of research and technology development.

"I'm very much an advocate of the free market—the government involved in picking winners and losers is not a good thing," says Dell's Asthana. "However, there's some fundamental technology research that the free market isn't going to see because it's too far out." Several people interviewed for this story point out the Internet originally came out of government agencies, and note that another government-led wave of innovation is now necessary.

Advice for the national CTO

A national CTO may appeal to some technology professionals, but the idea of another bureaucrat worries others. "In general, it would be good for someone to make sense of all the stuff they fund in the technical and IT realm with our tax dollars, but we'd be at risk of creating more ineffective bureaucracy in our government," says Michael Passe, storage architect at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. "I'd say proceed, but set up expected results and get ready to cut this out again if you aren't seeing any."

"It will be interesting to see how truly effective that position can be—a lot of federal agencies are bound by legislation that might conflict with some of the innovations people want to see," says Brandon Jackson, a current government CIO for Gaston County, N.C. For example, when it comes to a national wireless network for emergency responders, "The FCC has jurisdiction over radio frequencies, and has opened frequencies and bandwidth to government public safety officials already," says Jackson. "How would a nationwide network interact with that, and which frequencies would be used for what?" he asks.

Jackson says a national CTO is "probably long overdue," but he doesn't expect quick results. "It's going to be tough to make significant changes in the short-term timeframe," he says. "I think it'll take years. One of the planks in the Obama plan is to open up information from government—that in itself is an absolutely monstrous undertaking and that's where they should start."

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