IT managers may feel like they're constantly in a war zone, but few can claim to have literally been in this situation, unlike Army Headquarters' innovation and systems solutions architect Craig Collins.
Collins, who was originally part of the Royal Signals, is now tasked with improving efficiency in the Army's UK barracks and facilities.
While the environment may be different the problems he faces will be familiar to many, such as mobility, the cloud and the death of XP, as well as ensuring systems comply with stringent government security standards.
Eager to see how this difficult and at times dangerous digital landscape is navigated, V3 sat down with Collins to talk about the Army Headquarters' current and future plans.
Like many IT workers before him, Collins highlighted shifts in the technology culture as a key challenge facing the army, and listed the consumerisation of IT as one of the biggest problems he faces.
"I'd say cultural changes are a big issue for us. The defence sector has a lot of organisations going through changes at the moment, and a big one for us is Army 2020," he said.
"People see a lot of things they could do out in the civilian world. But because of our security procedures we have to be a little slower. We have to factor in all possible security concerns before we can approve something for general use."
Army 2020 is a restructuring project designed to make the army more efficient. It includes initiatives such as growing the size of the reserves force, and Collins highlighted the question of how to arm the new reserves as a key problem facing the IT department.
"We've had a lot reorganisation, and the number of reserves coming in is increasing thanks to Army 2020. The challenge we face is how to equip them securely."
He added that the security concerns around IT and device deployment have delayed how quickly the army can upgrade or embrace new technologies and are a key reason why Army Headquarters is only just migrating away from Windows XP.
"The security constraints mean that everything needs to be tested, which is why we're a bit behind at the moment," he said.
"We're currently changing our core operating system from Windows XP to Windows 7 because XP's unsupported.
"We always like to use the latest technology, but our system is so large it takes us a long time to approve anything, so using Windows 7 [rather than a newer version] is just normal business for us."
A flexible approach
Despite the slow move from XP, Collins said that government measures to improve technology approval processes have already begun to yield positive results.
"Security is paramount but, with the new government classification pending, we're in a position to use more commercial products without taking so long to approve them that they become useless," he said.
"There's good guidance coming out of [GCHQ's] Communications-Electronics Security Group on end user devices that is allowing us to exploit mobility.
"For us it's case-by-case approach to issues. For example, if we're considering a device for deployment where it's not handling anything potentially risky, what's the point of paying £500 for an iPad when a £200 Android tablet will do the job?"
Mobility is the future
Addressing the mobility question, Collins said that Army Headquarters is still taking measures to ensure that devices connecting to its network are securely managed.
"We add control measures using mobile device management and mobile application management, and are using a dashboard so you get a real-time snapshot of how many devices are protected and not protected," he said.
"This stops that moment where someone says ‘Oops I've lost something' and that being it. Now they can say ‘Oops I think I lost it', lock it and check the location using our tools and know whether or not they have."
Specifically, Collins said that the army is using a variety of management solutions to deal with the different devices and operating systems being used by staff and soldiers.
"We're using Symantec App Centre for iOS and Android, and we use Microsoft Intune for Windows Phone 8. I don't think anybody does everything perfectly," he said.
"That's why we are using two. Luckily these are cloud services, so if I get proved wrong and one does become the best at everything we can easily switch."
Despite his confidence in cloud management tools, Collins admitted that there are still concerns about the technology's security.
"In some aspects we're concerned about cloud. Like everything for us it's case-by-case. We take each situation as it comes and assess it. The government says we can use it, but it has to have and offer the same assurances as when we weren't using it," he said.
"So if something's extremely sensitive we have to deal with a lot of different challenges and constraints. The layered approach we use in approving items doesn't change. Even if it's in the cloud and electronic you still have to be responsible with the data you handle.
"There's also a debate about how much we want to offshore things. The general mood is we shouldn't, but will eventually have to. This will be decided at a higher level."
However, Collins was quick to add that cloud technology can radically improve efficiency in certain circumstances.
"In some cases the technology is useful. In the old days a lot of our paper information wasn't as technically restricted as the systems it was stored in, so they were kind of restricted by default," he said.
"With our current approach moving this online, a lot of this has changed and people can now get the information. This has helped us financially as it means we're not paying to secure things that don't need to be."
Collins said that this flexible approach has also helped certain atypical projects and forces linked to the army, such as the Land Accident Investigation Team (LAIT).
"These are the chaps where, if a soldier's injured climbing a mountain or running an exercise, they go and do the investigation. They run investigations by collecting lots of data," he said.
"They're an interesting case as most of them - and they wouldn't mind me saying this - are older gentleman who struggle to use PCs. I'd come in and try and teach them how to do a PowerPoint and they'd not have a clue.
"So we educated them about what technology is available. Then a few weeks later I had a member come to me with an iPad and start pointing out all the applications he's been using."
He said the combination of mobile and cloud services has already improved LAIT's productivity without costing the army any money.
"We didn't design anything for them, but we just let them know what's out there and gave them the ability to send their information to our secure cloud where it was protected," he said.
"So now he's using apps that let him take the data, everything from taking pictures and using GPS to all sorts of technical things that I don't understand.
"Then he's using the data to create reports about safer practices at the end of an investigation and spot what may have or did cause an accident, meaning people know not to do it again."
Looking to the future Collins said that the army will continue marching forward with its flexible case-by-case approach, and listed wearable devices as a key area where technology could further aid the army.
"We're looking at wearables. The health apps have real potential. [For example] to look at a soldier who is rehabilitating. We look at his mental health and physical health, and sleeping's a big part of that," he said.
"It's important that they're sleeping soundly and not waking up all the time. These let us monitor that without attaching loads of things to him and being invasive. That gives us an extra indication how they're doing."
Collins is one of many IT professionals to see the benefits of wearables in healthcare.
IBM recently set up a Cloud Watson Health initiative to take information from wearable devices, in this case the Apple Watch, and process it with Watson in a format that is useful for the healthcare industry.
The move from XP to Windows 7 may make the army's non-deployed IT system look slightly backward, but the case-by-case approach is pragmatic and refreshingly more open than you'd expect from an armed service.
By examining what areas are appropriate for new technologies, such as smartphones, tablets and cloud services, the case-by-case approach makes the army's IT systems sound noticeably more flexible and reactive than many enterprise firms'.
It will be interesting to see how the strategy plays out in the future as yet more disruptive shifts, such as the IoT, begin to further alter the use of technology.
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