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US Military Technology Paradox: Cutting Edge & Clueless

 
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I've been to a couple of conferences recently where I was surprised to see representatives of the U.S. military on panels discussing various uses of technology, but I was shocked to learn that the military was on the cutting edge of the technologies being discussed. To be honest, my perception of the military would be more in line with the recent announcement that US Army was updating its 700,000 desktops at the end year, not with Windows 7 and Office 2010, but with Vista and Office 2007.

So how is it that the military can be by turns cutting edge and clueless?

Military Gets Social

At the AIIM conference in Philadelphia recently, I watched a CIO panel discuss various technology topics. When the discussion turned to social media, I was taken aback when the military representative, James Whitlock, Lt. Col., U.S. Air Force Medical, seemed to understand the most and the private sector representatives the least. Indeed, David Meerman Scott (whom I interviewed in Don't Spread a Virus, Catch a World Wide Rave), has written extensively about the Air Force's use of social media including this piece called The US Air Force and Social Media. A Discussion with Colonel Michael Caldwell.

Scott is clearly impressed with the way the Air Force has embraced social media and he wonders (quite rightly in my view) why some large corporations are so afraid of it:

I was impressed with how deeply the smart people at the Air Force have thought about social media and how quickly they have jumped in. I hope that people from all organizations, particularly executives in large corporations who are often fearful and dismissive of social media, can learn from Colonel Caldwell and the examples here.

They Get Cloud Computing Too

Last week I attended the MIT CIO Conference in Cambridge, MA and watched a panel called CIO Leadership and the Bottom Line that included representatives from Dell, IBM, Parexel and the Defense Information Systems Agency. When the talk focused on cloud computing, the Dell representative, Stephen Schuckenbrook, president, large enterprise was more enthusiastic than I would have expected, but Jo Hoppe, the CIO at Parexel took a dim view. Who embraced it fully? Rear Admiral Elizabeth Hight, vice director of the Defense Information Systems Agency.

Hight explained how the military has set up a flexible set of cloud services that enables people in the field to set up and break down a project very quickly, a must in a military situation. Hight said they have a secure system and they are able to provide their constituents what they need on the fly. Meanwhile Hoppe complained that her company, which deals with drug trials, couldn't use cloud computing because it wasn't secure enough and regulations prohibited it.

Panel moderator, Erick Brynjolfsson of the MIT Center for Digital Business did not miss the irony that the military, which requires perhaps the most secure network in the world was not afraid to engage in cloud computing, but the private sector company CIO claimed she was handcuffed by regulations around security.

But Why Vista?

Yet just as I'm beginning to think the military completely understands technology comes word the United States Army plans to upgrade their Windows XP/Office 2003, a perfectly good combination and as stable as you're likely to get from Microsoft to Vista/Office 2007. The obvious question is why go to Vista, which has been notoriously unstable?

I would feel a lot better about our military personnel on XP than I would on Vista. But if you're going to upgrade here's a little advice: Dudes, Windows 7 and Office 2010 is on the way. If you insist on going with a Microsoft solution, you're probably better waiting for the upgrade .

Even better, you might want to consider Linux and OpenOffice for a majority of desktops and save the tax payers a few dollars.

In the end, the military is like any other large organizations making some good technology decisions and some bad ones, but when they make good ones, private companies can watch and learn and realize there's nothing to be afraid of when it comes to moving your organization forward on the technology curve. Just stay away from Vista for goodness sakes.

 
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During my time in the Airforce, i regularly used technology, both hardware and software that was about 20 years ahead of civilian deployment. I was making VOIP calls in 1984 on a regular basis, and had network storage hundreds of miles away from our site. Always remember that the Military must stay ahead of the general populace, so that they stay secure, mobile and in real time. If you saw wha they had under wraps, it would make your head spin.

 
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Hi:
Thanks for the comment and for sharing your experience. That's what I'm learning and private sector companies can learn from this especially when military personnel share their experiences at conferences like the ones I've seen recently.

 
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The problem is that if they wait to upgrade to Windows 7 it will take another 2 years or so after it's release until they'd upgrade. While they're on the cutting edge on technology that's solely for the military, commodity software they always wait for a long time after it's released. This is the normal timeline where'd they would upgrade to the next release ie. vista. That said don't believe for a second that all military computers run Windows. Yes they use it for general computing needs, but in my time in the Navy we used Solaris or HP/UX for all of our actual work (for my field which we actually worked on a computer 90% of the time) and mission critical needs, and Win2k for admin stuff, email, and access to the intra/internet. I'd love to see them to at least start migrating to Linux but I don't see it happening anytime soon. Every command has their own special forms and other Office centric stuff that they're not going to want to convert or redo into another application. Unfortunately it's not like one big company with centralized IT. It's thousands of small companies under one umbrella (IT wise).

 
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Thanks for the comment. I see what you're saying, but this announcement involved a blanket upgrade for 700K desktop machines. At this point, they would be better off staying put in my opinion, rather than upgrading to Vista/Office 2007, which will involve a huge change in the way they operate because Office 2007 uses the ribbon and it will likely require a lot of training to make the transition. If I were making recommendations, I would use this as an opportunity to reevaluate the desktop system and see if there were a percentage that could be switched to Linux/OpenOffice. If you're training anyway, might as well do it with a lower cost option. Plus I'm willing to bet many users would be more comfortable in the menu/toolbar world of OpenOffice than in the new ribbon of Office.

But it's interesting to hear about your experience using other systems and I'm sure that's the case throughout the military for larger systems when you get beyond the desktop.

 
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The entire DoD has been on this path for more than 4 years. The Air Force standardized its desktop OS and security settings in 2004, and the evolution of those settings has become the DoD and actually the federal government standard for desktop operating systems. Why Vista you ask? Well, to be honest, Win7 is still too green, and XP is too long in the tooth. XP will not be supported much longer, and the DoD hasn't had any time to put Win7 into a security pressure cooker to see what happens.

The DoD Vista configuration has been in development since just prior to the beta public release, and has been active on the Air Force networks since July of 2008. It has been well tested, and while it's not perfect, we know what most of the problems are.

 
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Hi Phil:
Thanks for the comment and for helping us understand this decision. I still think you would be better off sticking with XP and starting to test the Win 7 Public Beta now.

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