FAA: E-mail will fly

Officials defend NexGen as faster, more reliable despite criticisms

The Federal Aviation Administration's decision to develop a Lotus Notes-based e-mail system—even though most other Transportation Department agencies use Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange—won't cause significant interoperability problems, according to FAA and DOT officials.

"We will be compatible with the outside world, including DOT," said Bill Culver, the FAA's Next Generation Messaging System program manager.

Indeed, officials said the NexGen program will result in a streamlined, state-of-the-art system that improves the efficiency and reliability of communications throughout the agency.

But by not adopting the DOT's de facto standard, Exchange, the FAA will unnecessarily complicate its ability to communicate and work with the rest of the department—something that has long plagued the agency, said George Molaski, former DOT chief information officer.

Last month, the FAA awarded IBM Corp. a $30 million contract to develop an enterprisewide replacement for its existing system, based on cc:Mail — an outdated program from IBM subsidiary Lotus Development Corp. that the company will not support after Oct. 31.

NexGen, based on Lotus Notes, will provide new features FAA users requested, and e-mail servers will be in just 12 locations instead of 379, FAA officials said.

"Top down, this is a wholesale change for the way the agency does electronic mail," Culver said. "We're moving into the future."

With fewer servers handling messages, one of the biggest benefits will be faster, more reliable delivery, said David McDuff, deputy NexGen program manager. "We're going to reduce the delivery time dramatically, partly by reducing the number of mail stores," he said.

With the current system's "store and forward" technique, e-mail traffic often travels through as many as nine servers before reaching the intended recipient, often resulting in messages taking up to an hour to be delivered, McDuff said. The wait under NextGen should be a matter of minutes at most, with servers at the FAA's nine regional offices, its headquarters and two other centers, he said.

Because Lotus' support for cc:Mail and the FAA's 43,000 seat licenses end in October, the agency began developing requirements last year for a new system. Among the requirements was integrated scheduling features, Web-based access to accounts and videoconferencing.

"Their gathering of user requirements is really what drove what they selected," said Ed Brill, Lotus' director of product marketing for Notes.

Under NexGen, an around-the-clock help desk will be available and a national laboratory will ensure that changes are fully tested before being deployed, Culver said.

But Molaski contends that the choice of the system was "a very poor decision on the part of [the] FAA."

"It's time to stop these IT fiefdoms of everybody having to be unique," he said. "If the majority of a department goes with a certain solution, other parts should conform. The FAA will now not fit in with the overall architecture that's being developed."

Molaski said the FAA's award flies in the face of the call by Mark Forman, new associate director for information technology and electronic government at the Office of Management and Budget, for agencies to "unify and simplify" their IT systems.

"They have chosen a system which is going to cause extra work on their part," Molaski said.

But DOT deputy CIO Kim Taylor said his organization reviewed the FAA's plans and found potential connection problems to be minimal.

"We're satisfied that the right hooks within Lotus Notes and the right hooks within Microsoft Exchange are there to make the interoperability issues relatively minor," Taylor said.

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