Harness the Transformative Power of IoT
Rick Piña is talking about the Internet of Things (IoT) and all the benefits the technology can provide to government agencies. Sensors can do so much, and once they’re deployed, they may be able to tell agencies things they didn’t expect – second-order effects that no one anticipated when the project began. Sensors collect data, and when that data gets processed, it produces insights, those insights drive decisions, and those decisions can save time, money, even lives.
But that’s not what Piña is trying to get across right now. What he wants to get across is that his firm, World Wide Technology (WWT), isn’t just in the business of moving product or selling tools. What turns Piña’s motor is something more powerful: The ability to help his government customers understand what emerging technologies are available and how they all can be deployed to solve real problems – just like IoT.
We’re gathered in WWT’s hip new Innovation Center overlooking the Capital One Arena in the heart of downtown Washington, D.C. The classic architecture on the outside belies the urban chic interior upstairs, outfitted with dynamic collaboration spaces and wall-sized touchscreen displays that evoke Silicon Valley more than D.C. The challenge with IoT in a military or government setting is that government customers face issues that don’t exist in many commercial applications, Piña says, challenges involving security, or connectivity, or the need to operate at the tactical edge in a contested environment where network connections may come and go, but systems can never fail.
Chief Technology Advisor, Public Sector, WWT
These problems are near and dear to Piña who breaks the mold from the typical D.C. technology executive. For starters, he’s not a sales guy; he’s a practitioner who knows his customers’ challenges first hand. Piña enlisted in the Army as a teenager, then climbed the ranks over the next two decades, completing his 25-year military career as the Army’s Chief Technology Officer. Piña doesn’t just understand intellectually what it means to deploy downrange or roll out a new system for operational use. He understands as one who’s been there, done that. He knows firsthand what happens when communications lines are spotty, when bandwidth comes and goes, when external circumstances interfere with real life.
So that’s where Piña is coming from as he explains his approach to helping customers leverage the potential of IoT. “Customers aren’t looking for IoT,” he explains. “They don’t have an IoT team. They have challenges. They want better outcomes.”
In other words, IoT is a means to an end, a way to get to better outcomes, but not the solution itself. Piña’s job is to help customers understand that means to an end, to explain both the art of the possible – how sensors, effectively deployed with analytics and other tools, can produce data and, ultimately, insights – and the art of the practical – how those pieces will fit into a customer’s existing information ecosystem.
It’s complicated. But by taking the time up front, he’s convinced he can provide better advice and solutions that can be tested, integrated and deployed more rapidly and effectively for the government.
This approach has helped WWT quietly evolve from a conventional reseller into an $11 billion systems integrator with customers all around the globe.
For some people, the term IoT may seem relatively new, but as a company, WWT has been working on this for the past 14 years.
That’s when a WWT unit started working with a government customer to integrate an emergency management solution that tied together advanced sensors, communications, and alert systems to provide an early warning capability about weapons of mass destruction.
WWT’s solution? A unique sensor integration bus. “That basically became a standard to where new sensors can come in and all of these sensors can be integrated into one common platform where they can communicate with one another,” Piña says. “So, all of that data could be presented in a single common operational picture. We’ve been iterating with them ever since.”
That product, the Mobile Field Kit, grew into a full-scale Program of Record and has been shared with America’s Five Eyes partners, with state and local governments, and is now routinely deployed as part of a broader command and control package used at everything from the Super Bowl to presidential inaugurations. Tying together the sensor feeds from chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and other sensors, gives commanders the current, accurate and comprehensive operational picture they need to ensure security.
“This is what we’re really talking about when we discuss the Internet of Things – the connectedness of everything,” Piña says.
While the application is different, the challenge isn’t much different when it comes to deploying other kinds of sensors for other purposes. Maybe you want to enhance identity controls or provide access in a secure facility – IoT can connect the card-reader sensors that read ID cards with cameras that can confirm identity. Or maybe you want to manage the wear and tear on a fleet of vehicles. IoT can connect sensors and systems on those vehicles to the analytics that monitor fuel consumption, speed, distance, temperature, and now, with GPS, location and travel routes.
Connecting those sensors is ultimately not that much different from connecting other sensors, whether they’re monitoring temperature, motion, systems performance, or the license plate on a car coming onto a base. If one sensor can capture that license plate and another can capture the face of the driver, then intelligence in the background can confirm identity and gate guards can wave drivers in more efficiently.
These sensors need to be seen as part of an overall architecture, an overall strategy to produce the type of outcome that the agency is looking for. At the end of the day, you can add a bunch of stuff to your network, but unless it’s integrated, it’s not going to generate the desired outcome.
Sensors can help them understand their environment by tracking and measuring use, which can help when it comes to making other decisions, such as whether a cloud solution makes more sense than managing a system in a local data center, for example. “These sensors need to be seen as part of an overall architecture, an overall strategy to produce the type of outcome that the agency is looking for. At the end of the day, you can add a bunch of stuff to your network, but unless it’s integrated, it’s not going to generate the desired outcome.”
Integration means getting all the systems working together, sharing data and, where possible, automating the analytics and even some decisions. “We’ve had badges for a long time and there are many facilities where people badge-in, and that data goes nowhere other than to a local database,” Piña says. “But if you could export that data and then do something with it, then yes, we can actually track mobility, we can track when something happens, we can stop something in real time or backtrack and find out who was where at a given time. We can set rules, so when X happens, we can ensure that these doors close, or these alarms go off, or maybe I want certain information to be exported and signals to go out.”
The magic of it all is not the sensor, but what happens with the data the sensor collects. “That’s where WWT comes in because you have people who build sensors, people who specialize in networking those sensors and people who focus on the network infrastructure. Not to mention the cloud companies.” There are so many different specialists, he says, and it can all be highly confusing. “What WWT does is give you access to all the OEMs and also the ability to understand how everything works together.”
One of the crown jewels for WWT is its Advanced Technology Center in St. Louis, MO, a $600 million data center with 400 racks of equipment focused on innovation and the ability to model exactly how different systems and technologies work together. “With WWT, government customers don’t have to build a lab or an environment with all the things that they have to integrate. We give them an environment where they can do integration testing, and we do it right alongside with them. We have a hundred engineers assigned to this thing, helping them to innovate, to do integration and alleviate the integration burden.”
Delivering IoT Outcomes with Intel
It all starts with a conversation. Piña knows the drill for government technology leaders: Every company has a technology that will solve all of the government’s problems. But making all those products coexist is harder than it looks. So is understanding what the options are and what the constraints may be, given existing infrastructure, operational requirements, as well as the need to be able to work on and offline. “We spend four hours, eight hours with a whiteboard,” Piña says. “Now, they’ve met with three vendors already and they know a lot, but they often don’t know what they don’t know. So, we walk them through everything going on in that category, go over our understanding of their current environment and help them get a fresh baseline on it all. We do a lot of education.”
After that baseline, the experts roll in and customers have the chance to play with the technologies, to see the pieces in action. “I wish I had this when I was in the Army,” Piña says. “We give the engineers a username and password and access to an environment where they can actually play with the gear. They can touch and feel it, see what the user interface is like.”
Not only can visitors compare technologies and see how they work together, Piña says, they can replicate their own environment and the real-world challenges they’ll face implementing a commercial technology in a tactical environment with connectivity and other unique challenges.
“Maybe you’re on the tactical edge, or maybe you’re at the other end of a satellite hop,” Piña says, thinking back to the kinds of problems he faced every day in uniform. “Maybe you want to address latency, packet loss and jitter. You would love to do that, to engineer a pilot or proof of concept showing how all of these things either fit or don’t fit well together.”
These projects uncover the facts that aren’t easy to see when doing market research by searching through company literature and technical notes.
Others might not take into consideration packet loss or latency or jitter or ease of use or my Army requirements. But you can do all of that in the WWT Advanced Technology Center. This is not PowerPoint, it’s not a slick sheet, it’s not a PDF. This is live.
Chief Technology Advisor, Public Sector, WWT
The reality is that there are multiple routes to the same end goal, but finding the one that’s going to work best, within a given budget and existing infrastructure, and under a particular set of requirements is really difficult. Customers often require help sorting through these options. Providing them the ability to see and test different solutions makes a difference.
IoT is complicated. It can involve hundreds or thousands of sensors, numerous software packages and the opportunities for failure are as great as the potential for success. CIOs and CTOs need partners who can tilt those odds in their favor and turn potential into payback. “When I put all these pieces together, what I want is a platform, an architecture,” Piña says. “CIOs need someone to help them on that journey, to guide the migration.”
Perhaps more than anything, they need someone to help them get started, to turn the possible into the doable. “So, let’s start the conversation,” Piña says. “Let’s talk about your data, it needs to go somewhere. It needs to move, so let’s talk about transport. Let’s talk about cloud or your existing data center. How are you going to correlate, digest, process, analyze that data? What is it going to look like?”
IoT can transform a government enterprise. But it’s not going to change anything if an agency can’t get the concept off the ground. Rick Piña knows that. It’s his job to help turn ideas into progress.