Future perfect

To see how complex the next few years will be for federal agencies as they transition to the next generation of communications networks, all you have to do is look at how the General Services Administration's contracts have changed over the years.

In the 1980s, FTS 2000 offered 16 core services. When GSA awarded the contract's successor, FTS 2001, in the late 1990s, there were 35. And now, the Networx contracts GSA will award in April 2006 will start with more than 50 core services.

The services cover a range of technologies. Even the relatively ancient frame relay and Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) services are still in demand and included.

But so are more advanced technologies, such as Synchronous Optical Network, voice over IP (VOIP), IP-based virtual private networks (VPNs), IP video, managed applications and security, and cellular and multimode wireless service.

Those options are indicative of the issues agencies will have to come to grips with as they move from the sedate world of plain old telephone service — usually called POTS — to converged voice, data and video running on the same IP network.

GSA officials are confident that Networx will provide for agencies' needs as they emerge in the next few years, said John Johnson, the Federal Technology Service's assistant commissioner for service development and delivery. "We sat down with our customers to make sure they agreed with our views, and then we also shared them with industry and asked them if the Networx core services agreed with what they would offer in the near future," he said. "The resounding answer was 'yes.'"

As with FTS 2001, Networx includes a modification process that will allow agencies and providers to agree on adding services as new technologies are developed.

Industry confident about Networx technologies

Paul Girardi, director of engineering at AT&T Government Solutions, agreed that Networx should provide for many of the government's emerging needs without requiring agencies to use other contracts to supplement the offerings.

"We do think [GSA has] done a good job in terms of forward thinking," Girardi said. Networx has requirements for new technologies such as Layer 2 VPN, which is more backward-compatible than some more common VPN technologies, he added.

Demand for VPN is high as organizations seek more reliable and secure routes for remote communications than public networks. VPNs allow employees working from home, for example, to gain access to agency networks without compromising data security.

But Layer 3 VPN, more common than Layer 2, carries only IP traffic. Layer 2 VPNs allow sites with frame relay or ATM networks to connect via IP. That allows federal agencies and their various departments and remote offices that use frame relay or ATM to carry data to connect to one another using a VPN.

Layer 2, the data-link layer, is concerned only with transporting messages over known paths directly between one device with a permanent address on the network to another. Layer 3, the network layer, is used to direct messages to locations — or IP addresses — anywhere on the network.

Although the whole world seems to be moving to IP, agency users might find it unsuitable for some applications and believe it would be costly to make a wholesale switchover. For them, frame relay and ATM services are still essential.

Therefore, vendors will continue to provide those services, but over integrated backbones that are capable of carrying voice and data. That costs less than providing frame relay or ATM connectivity, while not forcing slower-moving customers to upgrade.

Sprint, for example, was one of the first major carriers to move in this direction. It built an IP core into its worldwide network with plans to eventually collapse its voice, data and video traffic onto an integrated network.

"The Networx [request for proposals] has certainly pushed various combinations of technologies together that show what these next-generation networks will have to handle," said Isaac Negusse, a solutions consultant in Sprint's Government Systems Division. "Layer 2 and 3 issues need to be dealt with, but we believe we can handle most of those needs."

Networx predicts VOIP dominance — eventually

Despite the interest in video and data, voice still reigns when it comes to network traffic. That's why VOIP has sparked such interest. The technology converts voice into data signals and transmits the resulting data packets over an IP network. They're decoded on the other end, enabling two-way conversations.

The VOIP technology that agencies need is not the Internet voice service that consumers buy through companies such as Skype or Vonage. Agencies turn to service providers that use backbone networks and can guarantee higher-quality service.

Although it might seem novel, VOIP is already growing in use, said Frank Dzubeck, president of Communications Network Architects. "You've no idea how much people are already talking" using VOIP, he said.

"Most carriers are already using it in their backbones, so they are basically just converting it for last-mile delivery using older technologies," he said. "Carrier-grade VOIP is better than cellular, and over time, cellular will convert to IP also."

VOIP is now capable of delivering what people have been used to with POTS, he said, and from a features standpoint it can deliver more.

However, as yet there hasn't been a significant pickup in the use of VOIP and observers don't think it's something that government users will necessarily jump into.

"I think it will be a very conservative, evolutionary path," said Ray Baxter, director of business development in Sprint's Government Systems Division. "VOIP has been talked about now for the past six or seven years, but so far there have been very few adopters."

Most agencies are cautious about changing technologies for core utilities such as voice service, said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting, a federal information technology and networking consulting firm. Availability is one deterrent and security another, he said.

"The prospect of having voice service interrupted is a frightening one to agency [telecommunications] and IT officials," he said. "Once you start to digitize it and put it over the same infrastructure as the local-area network and other stuff, they feel that opens them up to all kinds of problems." POTS may be quaint, but it's secure, Suss said.

Also, there's no apparent cost pressure to change. Agencies have already paid for their current PBXs, phones and headsets, he said, plus the price of voice service has already dropped drastically, to about a penny a minute.

Contrary to what many thought would happen, video over IP networks and particularly video to the desktop are not being used much, observers say.

As broadband capacity increased and the cost of transferring data dropped, the assumption was that video would quickly become a large part of the traffic carried via converged IP networks.

Suss said he expects the government to move slowly to next-generation converged networks, even though a few agencies are already building IP environments.

"The fact is, the innovative services that will be available through Networx are not traditionally offered by the network service providers, even in the commercial space," he said. "My best guess is that agencies will initially focus [through Networx] on the types of services that are currently available through FTS 2001, including IP services."


**********

Converged networks can offer broader services

As much as the blending of technologies themselves, the kinds of services telecommunications providers will offer under bundling and managed arrangements could drive agencies and other organizations to converged networks.

"Our surveys are not seeing a lot of change with that currently," said E. Brent Kelly, senior analyst and partner at Wainhouse Research. "But organizations don't want to be their own phone or [communications] bridge company."

One example is PBX, he said. Traditionally, large organizations had to buy a PBX for each of their locations. But with IP PBXs, which now make up half of all U.S. sales, agencies can do the same work with fewer units. That saves money on maintenance and operating costs.

As telecom companies start offering more services and users see they can get more applications, such as Web conferencing, they could move to integrated networks.

"Our sense is that providers will be putting some very attractive packages of services together in the future," Kelly said. "They could prove to be compelling offerings."

Agencies may have no choice but to move toward using bundled and managed services rather than deploying their own services, because the information technology industry is heading that way, said Frank Dzubeck, president of Communications Network Architects.

It's all about utility and adaptive and on-demand computing. Those technologies have the same basic tenets built around service-oriented architectures, he said. "And in that environment, services are the key," Dzubeck said.

It won't merely be a question of the best price for service delivery, but the quality of that service and whether the provider can consistently deliver services and applications, said John Johnson, assistant commissioner for service development and delivery at the General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service.

For agencies, "the difference will be managing contracts in a service-level agreement environment," he said.

— Brian Robinson

Security is baked in

A big difference in the Networx contract compared with previous versions is that security is considered an integral part of the services delivered rather than a network add-on.

That approach is central to being able to deliver the mix of services and applications that the next generation of networking aims for, said Ray Baxter, director of business development in Sprint's Government Systems Division.

Providing services customers increasingly demand, such as spam control, requires filtering content in the server long before it gets to the end user, Baxter said. So it is imperative for providers to plan such measures at the outset of an implementation rather than trying to tack them on at the last minute.

"If we wait to provide security at the edge, we lose the capability of managing within the network," he said.

The new, converged networks emphasize delivering and Web-enabling applications and moving messages securely, said Paul Girardi, director of engineering at AT&T Government Solutions.

"The trick to that is being able to supply the security along with the applications and services," he said. "Rightly, there's almost as big an emphasis on security as on the network component."

— Brian Robinson

Featured

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above