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America’s First CTO?

Cisco’s Padmasree Warrior tells us what role a U.S CTO should play.
February 11, 2009

President Obama pledged during his campaign to appoint the nation’s first-ever chief technology officer. As CTO of Cisco Systems–a leading maker of the Internet’s routing and switching equipment–Padmasree Warrior is a leading candidate for the job.

National CTO?: Padmasree Warrior, CTO of Cisco Systems.

Warrior sees the federal CTO as helping revitalize the economy by advising how information technology can drive down health-care costs, revamp the electrical grid, and improve education. Whether or not she ends up in Washington, Warrior is already in a position to help chart the future of the Internet through Cisco’s networking strategy and investments. She spoke about this future with Technology Review chief correspondent David Talbot.

Technology Review:Are you going to be the first national CTO?

Padmasree Warrior:
I can’t comment on that.

TR: Your name is all over the media, and you aren’t denying it.

PW: (laughing) That’s the media’s issue, not mine!

TR: What should the national CTO do?

PW: In terms of the top areas of focus, the first is to work on e-government initiatives, allowing government to be more efficient and open. The second area is to leverage innovation to boost the economy. The third area being talked about is cybersecurity. If you look at President Obama’s agenda for technology and the importance he feels it has in terms of putting the United States back as a technology leader–and leveraging technology to boost the economy–the CTO can have a huge impact in that agenda.

TR: But how does more broadband installation boost the economy, beyond creating one-off construction jobs?

PW: There are many areas we can look at, such as modernizing health care with health-presence solutions–like a doctor from a remote area interacting with a patient who might not otherwise have access–and making the energy grid more efficient with smart-grid technologies. Collaboration, virtual networking, and visual communications will be the e-businesses of the next decade, and this will drive productivity. To do all of that, we need to have broadband connectivity nationwide.

TR: Cisco is planning to make more acquisitions in the area of video. What is the future of networking?

PW: One of the things we see happening is combining video communications with social networking–what we call “visual networking,” which will change the way we do business and how we communicate with our families. Initially, teleconferencing was for business meetings, but we see it moving also into the consumer space and in new areas like health care and education. Some things have to be done to change infrastructure to allow this to happen, like putting intelligence in the network, so it can recognize an HD-format video, and adjust network characteristics as needed without compromising the quality of service.

TR: Speaking of putting intelligence in the network, Internet security is worse than ever.

PW: Security has moved from spam, and a few smart people breaking into networks for fun, to becoming far more organized. Now you have bots that you didn’t know existed. The whole issue of network security is so much more than having a firewall to protect your device. As we move toward cloud computing, we believe the network has a strong role to play.

TR: What is the future of networks in India and other parts of the developing world?

PW: Video and collaboration are important in emerging, as well as developed, countries. And more than half of the world is connected via a mobile device. My own view is that very soon the term “mobile Internet” will be redundant. The Internet will be pervasive, mobility will be built into it, and people will expect Internet access no matter where they are and across any device that they possess. As we introduce more personalized applications and high-definition video, we need think about the network playing an integral role via prioritization, bandwidth, and more intelligence.

TR: IT systems already produce two percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Won’t more IT inevitably mean more emissions?

PW: Information technology will drive us to become more sustainable, not less sustainable. Computing will be much more energy-efficient. Telepresence will reduce travel and carbon footprints. Applying IT networks will enable the creation of smart buildings and smart transportation systems. And if you look at the network and how many billions of people and how many more billions of devices will connect, we think there is a huge opportunity of the network to play a role in terms of monitoring, managing, and reducing energy consumption.

TR: But can you get rid of skips in voice calls and jitters in streaming video?

PW: Quality of service continues to be important. One of the things we believe, that we’ve put a lot of effort into…

TR: Hello?

PW: (a minute later) Hi, sorry, I didn’t plug in my cell phone last night!

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