Love/hate relationship with NMCI

The Navy and Marine Corps have learned many lessons from the massive ' and controversial ' outsourcing project

Officials close to the Navy Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI) and even some critics say the program has grown and matured beyond its relatively modest beginnings to become a primary, indispensable communications asset.

With only three years left before another network program is scheduled to supersede NMCI, the intranet supports nearly 660,000 users in more than 620 locations worldwide. It is among the most complex networks in the world. 

That's a dubious distinction, however, because that complexity has caused major headaches. The NMCI program has been dogged from all sides by complaints of inefficiency and poor performance. For the Navy and Marines, it has been a pressure-filled learning experience, and for lead contractor EDS, it was a nightmare to watch the leased=services project teeter at the edge of financial disaster.

Critics of NMCI have not stopped pointing out the program's flaws. In December 2006, Government Accountability Office auditors noted improvements in some areas but concluded NMCI had not met the two strategic goals the Navy had set for it: to provide information superiority and foster innovation through interoperability and shared services.

'By not implementing its performance plan, the Navy risks investing heavily in a program that is not subject to effective performance management and has yet to produce expected results,' GAO's analysts wrote.

The agency's review found that EDS' ability to meet service-level agreements has been mixed and that users have expressed varying levels of satisfaction with customer service.

User surveys have generally reflected a high level of dissatisfaction, particularly in the early stages of the 10-year program. In 2003, for example, user satisfaction hovered around 60 percent. At the beginning of 2006, it had risen to around 75 percent.

A possible turnaround

Survey results for the third quarter of fiscal 2007 showed user satisfaction at 81.5 percent, the highest it has ever been. Unsatisfactory

e-mail and Web performance continues to be a concern, but NMCI program officials say the survey results reflect continued improvement in the performance of basic network services. Some longtime observers agree that the latest satisfaction numbers are respectable. 

David DeBrandt, director of federal research operations at market research firm Input, said large contracts such as NMCI are difficult if not impossible to implement smoothly. NMCI was a learning experience, even for an experienced government information technology contractor such as EDS, he said.

Other measures also offer evidence that NMCI is making progress toward the Navy's objectives, DeBrandt said. For example, the service has increased its spending on NMCI in the past few years, which shows that it has some confidence in the program, he added.

Looking back at the program's history, it's evident that nearly everyone involved was caught off guard by the difficulties involved in launching NMCI, said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting. He has followed NMCI from the beginning and described recent developments as dramatic progress.

'There are still pockets of technical problems and users who are not receiving the services they want to get,' Suss said. 'But you find those problems in any large government IT program. The point is [NMCI] now seems to be delivering services effectively and meeting its service-level agreements.'

Marine Col. Lyle Cross, NMCI's acting program manager, attributes the recent improvement in user satisfaction to a technology refresh program that has affected about a quarter of NMCI users. He also credits new capabilities that give managers better ways to measure of network performance. 

'We're heavily engaged in that technology refresh program, which will provide users with new systems and such things as increased RAM, faster chip speeds and an upgrade in operating systems' to Microsoft Windows XP and, eventually, Microsoft Vista, Cross said. 'I'd say from 8 to 10 percent of the increase in user satisfaction is due to this.'

In addition, technicians have placed extra probes throughout the intranet to collect data, which has helped them improve network performance. The NMCI performance database now contains information that managers can analyze weekly, Cross said.

Company officials say they expect the network's performance to improve again when they finish upgrading its storage-area network systems, a process that is about 50 percent complete. The upgrade will enable managers to become more proactive about network performance, EDS officials said.

Transition difficulties

The biggest obstacle to deploying NMCI has been identifying and replacing or incorporating older applications, observers say. Program managers identified about 150,000 such applications ' far more than anyone had imagined existed before the program began.

'That is a big problem,' said Paola Arbour, interim chief operating officer and vice president of operations at EDS for the NMCI account. 'Some of my people want [the integration and replacement] to move a lot quicker, but you can't just shut down or even remove things without planning for it.'

Some of the older applications are so essential that they can't be replaced, Arbour said. EDS deals with them in one of two ways. For some, it retrofits applications to work with NMCI. For others, it develops separate security and interoperability environments to support the applications so they can run on NMCI.

'We have about half a dozen of these protection environments that we support right now,' Arbour said, adding that the work to accommodate older applications is ongoing.

EDS experienced fewer problems in other areas, contracting officials said. Most people agree that NMCI's security features have been a success from the beginning. Those capabilities have enabled people to keep existing applications running, make the transition to NMCI and experience a decline in network intrusions, Arbour said.

In 2006, EDS officials said, NMCI blocked about 9 million pieces of spam and detected more than 5.2 million intrusion attempts each month.

In July 2006, EDS announced that it had fulfilled a Defense Department directive to enforce cryptographic log-ons for all public-key infrastructure accounts on NMCI. It was the only DOD network to do so. 

'This was a paramount requirement for the Navy,' Arbour said. 'That means that the NMCI was then and is now the most secure network in the DOD.'

Cross said a primary lesson learned from the NMCI implementation is that information assurance is an iterative process. A priority for the remainder of the NMCI contract is to maintain the network's high level of information assurance, he said.

'NMCI is probably one of the most secure networks in the world, but 660,000 users can trump most [security] efforts unless you stay vigilant,' Cross said.

Despite continuing criticism ' and there is still plenty of it from inside and outside the Navy ' NMCI appears destined to become a primary backbone of Navy and DOD communications networks, however they evolve. But perhaps more important, critics say, NMCI will stand as an example of what to avoid in future large-scale integration projects.

Lessons learned

EDS lost a great deal of money on the NMCI contract in its early years, and DeBrandt said it's doubtful the company will ever make money on the leased-services deal. However, company officials said, EDS has gained valuable experience in managing service-level agreements under a large-scale program and in meeting the diverse requirements of large military bases and tiny recruiting offices.

The company has already applied the lessons it learned from NMCI to another major deal in the United Kingdom, Arbour said. That agreement is for a 10-year, $4 billion project to create a modern IT infrastructure for Britain's armed forces.

'By 2010, we'll be the only integrator with the experience of managing such complex and secure networks,' Arbour said.

Suss said NMCI could be a model for future government projects. Leasing managed services, despite the many problems it created during NMCI's implementation, could still prove an attractive way for other government agencies to fulfill their communication needs, he said.

NMCI has made an enormous contribution to the modernization of the Navy/Marine Corps infrastructure, Suss said, and it has shown the way for other agencies that might be thinking about how to modernize their infrastructures.

'The fact that [NMCI] attempts to deal with all the things associated with that through a fixed-price contract with [service-level agreements] attached is an enormous step into the future,' Suss said. 'In the long run, government agencies will come to see the need for similar types of solutions, and I think they'll look to NMCI for lessons learned.'

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