Get ready for all-IP networks

New IP-based services on Networx could usher in big changes for federal agencies

Warning: Merge ahead

The transition to IP-based network services from traditional frame relay, Asynchronous Transfer Mode and point-to-point services requires more than innovative technologies and a new General Services Administration contract.

Next-generation IP networks and related services are enabling a convergence of data, voice and video applications via the same pipes. Less publicized are the demands that convergence is placing on government technology officials who manage those operations.
For example, as voice-over-IP gear replaces traditional analog telephone systems, it will necessitate some organizational changes. At most agencies, separate organizations manage the voice system, data network and information technology security systems. Converging voice and data on one network could mean combining those administrative tasks.

“In the view of many, organizational change is an evolutionary process that will eventually occur, but it will take time,” said Karl Krumbholz, director of network services programs at GSA’s Office of Integrated Technology Services.

“How quickly it happens depends on how fast organizational and political issues are resolved,” he said.

— Laurie Sullivan

Federal technology officials will see lower prices for data and telecommunications services on the two Networx contracts the General Services Administration awarded earlier this year. They will also have a choice among new IP-based services.

Agencies can use the IP services to support applications such as voice and video over IP, simplify network administration and extend the reach of local-area networks.

The addition of new IP services to Networx is part of an industrywide transition to IP from traditional types of network services. By 2010, spending on IP and Ethernet will eclipse existing telecom services, such as frame relay, Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) and private lines, reflecting the acceleration toward next-generation networks, said Steve Hansen, a senior analyst at market research firm In-Stat. Carriers’ investments in Internet bandwidth was the first step in that transition, followed by the development of better mechanisms to secure traffic.

Multiprotocol Label Switching “has become a popular topic during conversations at meetings with other agencies.” Phil Becker, Social Security Administration

“The carriers spent time resolving concerns based on security issues, making sure IP [virtual private networks] are as secure as legacy systems,” Hansen said.

The Social Security Administration has been an early adopter of two of the technologies that analysts expect to be popular Networx items: voice over IP and Multiprotocol Label Switching. MPLS is a technique that improves network efficiency and the quality of data transmissions for finicky applications. It also supports a mix of old and new network services on one infrastructure.

“MPLS has become a popular topic during conversations at meetings with other agencies,” said Phil Becker, SSA’s associate commissioner of telecom and system operations.

In 2004, SSA began deploying a secure MPLS network that connected about 2,000 locations, including field offices and data-exchange sites. The agency converted all sites in the continental United States by May 2005; the Pacific Rim, Puerto Rico and foreign service posts followed in 2006. Verizon and AT&T support the project.
In October 2004, SSA officials also launched a VOIP trial at 43 of its 1,700 field offices, running the services on the MPLS IP-based network. Now they want to expand VOIP to other sites.

MPLS is crucial to wide-scale VOIP deployment because it supports quality of service, a capability for configuring the network to give priority to voice traffic. It eliminates stutters and breaks by not allowing voice transmissions to exceed more than a 150-millisecond delay, Becker said, and it offers additional connectivity options for routing data to many locations rather than from point to point.

Other agencies are finding VOIP attractive because the technology can reduce operational costs by 10 percent to 20 percent compared with traditional phone service, said Paul Girardi, director of engineering at AT&T Government Solutions. Routine tasks, such as moving an employee to another office, require far less labor with an in-house, software-based VOIP system than with traditional phone services managed by a service provider, he said.

GSA’s Networx contracts will foster the adoption of IP networks and MPLS services governmentwide, said John Okay, formerly a deputy commissioner at GSA and now a partner at Topside Consulting.
“Today, we’re seeing MPLS as an efficient way to build out the telecom backbone and infrastructure,” Okay said. “It’s more efficient and cost-effective than frame relay, ATM or point-to-point circuits.”

Hansen said Virtual Private Line Service is another up-and-coming telecom offering that will accelerate the government’s transition from traditional services. In March, one current Networx provider, Verizon Business, began offering a service called Ethernet Virtual Private LAN Service. As an alternative to MPLS, Verizon’s service lets customers link an Ethernet LAN at one site to LANs at other offices nationwide.

Like MPLS, Verizon’s service lets customers configure traffic so that mission-critical or latency-sensitive applications, such as VOIP, are treated as the highest priority. It’s a level of flexibility previously available only with much more expensive network services, Verizon officials said.

Sullivan is a technology and business writer based in southern California.

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