Looking after the Prime Minister's data

Penny Harrington, manager of information systems at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, talks about security, social media cloud computing

What are your team’s core tasks?

Three staff plus myself provide all services from helpdesk basic support, to infrastructure and application support and some development.

How many users have you got?

We have around 120 permanent staff within the department spread over six physical locations. We have on a regular basis up to 140 people logging in and accessing aspects of the network.

What are their specific needs?

Diverse. We support Cabinet Office and the Honours group who work in a deskbound, highly sensitive environment.

We support Policy Advisors who are more mobile and agile, with security [being] less important.

We also support the Government House, which is very mobile [and they] use web communication as their main tool and do extensive event management; two intelligence units, which are extremely security-conscious, but require access to extensive amounts of web content; and Corporate Services, which is deskbound, but need to be on call to support ad hoc, agile and quick response solutions, for example the Christchurch earthquake.

What is your background?

I started my IT career in the early 1980s working on AS400s and MagCard technology. I moved to the Parliamentary complex as a computer administrator for PCs and Unix, then in the late 1980s, I was off to TVNZ as the IT manager, supporting the then large Avalon Studios complex.

I did a stint in the UK during the dotcom boom times, working on a variety of contracts, but predominantly with the Royal College of Surgeons, rationalising their multitude of surgeons’ databases into a single, functional application. [On returning from the UK] I took up a position as systems team leader with the Capital and Coast District Health Board and then moved to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) in 2007.

What sort of computers are you using at DPMC?

DPMC uses PCs as we don’t do the type of work that would require using Macs.

As we have some infrastructure, the opportunity exists for us to leverage benefits from the Linux desktop environment.

What operating system are you using?

Our servers are a range of Microsoft and Novell. The reasoning behind the Novell environment is that Government has predominately been a Novell client and DPMC has for that reason retained its Groupwise email system. DPMC is extremely reliant on its use of email, so having Groupwise gives us the resilience and availability we require, and its support requirements are considerably lower than [Microsoft] Exchange. There is also the aspect of security of emails that has kept us with Groupwise.

What are your main security issues?

Network integrity, security and protection and cyber-threats.

Do you use virtualisation?

Yes, we recently virtualised our infrastructure as a way of saving server replacement cost and rationalising our separate networks. It has also given us the ability to develop a much-required disaster recovery plan.

Does the DPMC provide computers for Cabinet?

The Cabinet Office is a business unit within DPMC and users are on our network, so yes, we do provide their computing requirements. Previously, we supported them via a dual network, “one for running the Cabinet Office function and one for their DPMC function”, but recently that has been integrated by rationalising on a single network and single desktops and applications. This has improved the Cabinet Office’s ability to communicate with their external clients without compromising security.

What trends are you seeing in government, is there a move from using desktops to using laptops and personal devices?

There is a movement in some government agencies to allow personal equipment to be connected; however, the types of work, classifications and sensitivity that we deal with daily would prohibit this being achieved within DPMC.

My feeling is that by removing the cost of the hardware, we are effectively moving those costs to the support area as teams would be required to resolve connectivity, application and other security issues.

The web opportunities might change this, but that again raises concerns to us about the use of cloud computing and the infancy of its security, where its hosted, governance and so on.

Are you using any cloud solutions, such as Google Docs (for non-sensitive information)?

[There is] no use of cloud solutions, as there is no confirmation in place about the security aspects of all our documentation and emails. We are awaiting a suitable solution via DIA [Department of Internal Affairs] and confirmation that our security advising agency is comfortable with it.

Are you looking at using new devices, such as the iPad?

The iPad is not on our current workplans, although perhaps some users might see the benefits. But security, encryption and other aspects are yet to be confirmed and approved by our security agency advisors.

What are your thoughts on social media? Is that something the DPMC is getting into?

Interesting question. We have just proposed an updated social media/internet/email policy to our senior management group, as more staff are finding information this way. However, DPMC staff are not encouraged to use social media to represent the department.

What are you using for communication internally; chat programs, video conferencing?

We don’t provide or use chat programs such as MS chat and Skype. Video conferencing is provided via the network, but could be achieved in shared meeting spaces [in the building].

What sort of mobile phones do Cabinet and the Prime Minister use?

The Prime Minister obtains his with networking, telephony and other services from within the Parliamentary Complex (Ministerial Services) as do all Ministers. Equipment provided to DPMC staff including Cabinet Office is predetermined, based on compliance with our security requirements.

Can users, including the Prime Minister, access information remotely via VPN?

The Prime Minister is not a member of this network. Therefore he does not have physical or remote access to any data contained within the environment.

What is the main focus of your team right now?

We are working on a number of initiatives, for example eDRMs upgrading (document management); disaster recovery installation; firewall upgrades; internet development; [Microsoft] Office application upgrade and email archiving upgrades.

We are also working on opportunities to rationalise and obtain additional cost savings through working more collaborativly with our central agencies.

These initiatives are pretty high-profile for our agency and will deliver added security and resilience, ultimately providing our users with a newer and more functional application base.

• Penny Harrington is a delegate at iTEX.

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