VA tackles old e-mail system

When Robert McFarland became chief information officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs last year, he was stunned to discover that the agency's e-mail system was stuck in the 20th century.

Instead of a centrally operated system with a vibrant infrastructure, the VA's messaging system served about 228,000 users at 271 locations with 528 servers.

Everywhere he turned, "we found an outage," McFarland said. E-mail servers went down for a variety of reasons, and no centralized system kept operations running.

"The mail was not exactly perfect," he said. "It seemed like a lot of things were not tied together. It didn't seem like the best environment."

McFarland, who came to work for the government after many years at Dell, was not about to be defeated by a set of loosely connected e-mail servers.

The VA's system reached 162 hospitals nationwide and facilities overseas. But the archaic and decentralized e-mail was in the Dark Ages, he said.

"It really was for the Smithsonian," said Sally Wallace, associate deputy assistant secretary for information technology operations. She is responsible for the VA's data, voice and video communications networks.

Additionally, every VA site and server had its own service contract. And many of the servers were so old that finding hardware upgrades and replacements when needed was costly and difficult.

McFarland put together a working group to come up with a way to consolidate the e-mail systems and their support plans. "We put four people into a room, with everyone figuring out how to solve the problem," McFarland said, and they did.

VA officials plan to award a contract in December that would overhaul the system and shrink the number of

e-mail servers to 24 nationwide. By this time next year, they expect to have the new e-mail system operational.

In addition, VA officials will replace a Microsoft Windows NT 4.0-based platform and the Microsoft Exchange Server 5.5 messaging system, neither of which support smart card technology, enhanced security features or other initiatives VA officials want to implement. They have already begun switching to Exchange Server 2003 at sites with hardware that can support the newer software, Wallace said.

"That is a very serious change in the structure of how we do e-mail," McFarland said.

"Operationally, VA does a very good job," he said. "We keep the lights on, the power going, the water running. We're just very expensive because everything is so decentralized."

But in changing the way e-mail works, McFarland said, "we have had no problem convincing people because [e-mail] is our lifeblood. It is all the more reason it needs to be up-to-date."

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