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Q&A: CIO Ross Philo On 'Post Office' In Your Home

In a tough business environment, the U.S. Postal Service is delivering new capabilities for home PCs and smartphones and new services for high-volume mailers, says its top IT executive.

InformationWeek: Where are your customers on the adoption curve of these capabilities?

Philo: It's early going. It went live in September, and we had an immediate kick up in activity that far exceeded our initial estimates. We've added a chat feature to which has also been very heavily subscribed. So we're very excited by the initial responses to these new capabilities. We've got a number of releases that are scheduled to come out over the next year to 18 months that will bring out additional functionality. The overall concept is to provide a seamless experience for customers regardless of which channel they contact the Postal Service through, whether it's a traditional bricks and mortar store, online or through the call center. We want to have a consistent way of providing information to the consumer and handling those inquiries and being aware of the business across those multiple channels. This is one of the biggest initiatives we've got during fiscal 2010 in terms of introducing new services through IT.

InformationWeek: What's next in mobile capabilities and Web interaction?

Philo: We will be adding further functionality through specific apps. For instance, there will be an iPhone app that comes out leveraging the GPS capabilities of those devices. In terms of, you'll see a refreshed and revitalized user interface, the ability to put chat into many of those functions and extending the range of services that are done online, effectively creating a post office in your home as well as a post office in your hand, as well as linking that to a greatly increased awareness of what those functionalities are. One of the areas that you'll see us do more of is to advertise post office capabilities in much of the way that you've seen with the flat rate box campaign recently. Trying to raise awareness in the consumer base of how much they can already do online is part of the challenge. Many people aren't aware that even now they can print out their own postal labels at home, they can arrange for free carrier pickup from home.

InformationWeek: How is IT contributing to the Postal Service's broader "green" initiatives?

Philo: We've done a huge initiative on virtualization. We've managed to reduce our footprint of individual servers dramatically by going through virtualization in all hardware environments and by reaching out to individual users, managing printers and reducing the amount of consumables in that area, as well as providing the sustainability group with ways of tracking power consumption in our facilities around the country. Energy is our second largest expense within the Postal Service. We're looking at whatever we can do through information to highlight how energy is being consumed as well as what we can do within the IT space to reduce the energy footprint of those assets that we control.

InformationWeek: Do you have applications for measuring the carbon footprint?

Philo: We're looking at various systems to track energy consumption in each of the plants, to be far more proactive in visualizing that, as well as looking at ways of tracking the carbon footprint both for plants and other activities within the Postal Service.

InformationWeek: What kind of work is underway in your data centers?

Philo: We have two major data centers. One is located near Minneapolis and the other is in California, in San Mateo. We obviously look at what we can do to optimize power consumption and cooling. One of the advantages of being in Minneapolis is during the winter our cooling requirements are fairly low. We do have a program underway to look at what we could do to develop a data center that would be located in such a way that we could leverage renewable energy sources and potentially even be in a position to inject energy back into the grid. Quite frankly, at this stage that remains a long distance plan simply because of our current financial circumstances. I would see that as a program that we might be able to achieve over the next decade; it's not a short term plan, but ideally what we would like to have is a pair of mirrored data centers where you can leverage best practices in energy management and renewable energy sources.

InformationWeek: What's your view on cloud computing?

Philo: We've been following it with great interest. In some ways, our approach to virtualization within the data centers is in effect a way for us to respond in an agile way and create essentially an internal cloud approach when it comes to providing computing resources. While we have been looking at external cloud offerings, we do have concerns and they're shared by many other organizations in terms of reliability and security, and in one very specific aspect for us, one of the concerns would be e-discovery and data preservation, where you've got the data scattered across multiple data stores. How do you recover data if you've got a request that comes in for legal reasons looking to preserve data when it is scattered across multiple sources and potentially disconnected from attachments it may have had? That's probably our biggest concern. It certainly does look appealing, but at this stage we're not ready to pursue it any material way.

We will continue to review it, potentially evaluate it for limited applications. I think it has value perhaps when it comes to providing rapid development environments where you can stand up capacity that you don’t have in your own data centers. But it's a long way before we would consider putting our production environment into an external cloud.

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