ATF wants more from mobile devices

Tuesday - 4/20/2010, 6:50am EDT

WFED's Jason Miller

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

More than three quarters of all employees at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives work in the field.

That means Rick Holgate, the ATF chief information officer, must support more than 6,500 laptops, about half with cellular broadband cards, 1,800 BlackBerrys and 180 handheld devices running mobile Windows.

But over the next year or so, Holgate would like to standardize and reduce the number of total devices, but not capabilities, ATF agents have.

"Over the long term, we want to have a more rational and cost effective set of mobile capabilities," he says. "Right now we have a lot of laptops, lot of cellular broadband cards and lot of BlackBerrys. And in some cases, the same person has all three of those. It's a pretty costly model for that one individual and it comes at the expense of someone else potentially not having that type of capability."

Holgate, who spoke at a recent conference, adds that his goal is to move employees to technology that provides more capabilities, but is not as bulky as laptops.

"There are a number of devices that fit that capability or are coming on the market today-whether it is an Apple iPad or Dell Mini5 that runs the Android operating system that is kind of in the blurry zone between a laptop and more traditional cellular device. That is probably where we will end up going long term," he says.

Holgate says ATF just finished a three-month pilot where 150 employees used Windows mobile devices to access real-time streaming video. And now, he wants to move to a second test using Apple iPhones.

"We already got our technical folks looking at the next generation of software to secure the devices," he says. "We haven't figured what the focus will be, but at least on the business intelligence aspect because that is part of a related issue of trying to expose more of our mission data through a business intelligence platform. So this is a nice compliment to that."

Many agencies are looking at the iPhone, but it does not meet the federal cybersecurity standards.

Holgate says ATF will use the iPhone on its unclassified network.

"It is not an insurmountable barrier, but we are looking at third party solutions to try to overcome some of that," he says. "There are some vendors out there at least purporting to provide those types of capabilities where you can secure an iPhone device to the level to satisfy federal requirements."

Holgate says part of the goal of the pilots is to see how ATF can move enterprise applications to the mobile devices.

"The BlackBerry is built to operate in an enterprise environment, but users want to move toward an application centric device," he says. "There is more flexibility in those types of devices, and employees are using these devices in their personal lives."

As with the any device, the goal is to balance convenience with security. In the initial pilot, ATF employees found that some of the security aspects compromised the usability of the device. But the agency also could update the devices more easily and more quickly by automatically pushing updates or patches.

"In terms of putting software and hardware in place there wasn't a significant cost there because we were riding our current infrastructure," Holgate says. "There was probably in terms of new software we had to put in our environment, there was probably on the order of a few hundred thousand dollars just to get some that infrastructure in place. Then we did a cost comparison if we had to sustain this over the long term as a capability, how would this compare to the more traditional BlackBerry? If you look at this from a total cost of ownership, it ends up being roughly the same."

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