NASA lifts off with ODIN

In what may mark a dramatic shift in the government's management of desktop PCs, NASA last week awarded contracts to seven vendors under a governmentwide program worth up to $13 billion for outsourcing computer hardware, software and management services.

The Outsourcing Desktop Initiative for NASA (ODIN) is one of the first large federal initiatives to allow agencies to privatize the desktop environment. It covers all aspects of the acquisition and management of desktop computers, an approach that has come to be known as seat management.

NASA awarded the ODIN pact to all bidders, including Boeing Information Services Inc., Computer Sciences Corp., DynCorp, FDC Technologies Inc., OAO Corp., RMS Information Services Inc. and Wang Government Services Inc.

The General Services Administration is expected to award a similar multiple-award contract June 29 under its government-wide Seat Management program. Thirteen vendors have bid on the contract.

"These contracts represent a paradigm shift in the way agencies buy and manage [information technology]," said John Okay, senior vice president of Federal Sources Inc., a consulting firm in McLean, Va. "[Federal] managers will have to learn they are buying services, not products."

IT contractors also will have to adjust to the new outsourcing contracts. "It is a change in culture," said Olga Grkavac, senior vice president of the Information Technology Association of America's Systems Integration Division. "It's absolutely a new way in serving [agencies]."

Under the contract, NASA will define the computer and communications capabilities for each job within the agency and purchase a particular bundle of hardware, software and communications for each seat. The price for each seat will be fixed. ODIN also will be open to other government agencies, with GSA managing agencies' task orders. The total value of the 10-year contract for all of NASA's business, combined with business anticipated from other agencies, will be $4 billion to $13 billion, according to NASA's chief information officer, Lee Holcomb.

Dividing the Orders

While each of NASA's 10 centers, including headquarters, will place orders exclusively with one vendor, four of the centers intend to work together to select one vendor, he said. These centers— Johnson Space Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, Stennis Space Center and Kennedy Space Center— make up about 50 percent to 65 percent of all NASA's desktop computers. The first ODIN order is expected to be placed by Oct. 1.

"It's almost going to be like another ODIN at the task-order level," said Sterling Phillips, vice president of corporate marketing at FDC. "The real competition is going to be for the individual delivery orders."

The specifics on the delivery order process have not been finalized, Holcomb said. The goals of ODIN are to allow the agency to measure investments in desktop computers, share the risks with the private sector and free up NASA to perform core mission-critical work, he said.

NASA studies of similar work in the private sector have shown that outsourcing does not always result in significant cost savings, Holcomb added. "Outsourcing is a risky proposition," he said. "We're going to do everything we can to do this in an effective way so we succeed. We do hope to save some money. I don't believe that this is the be-all, end-all to go outsourcing."

Industry sources described ODIN as a landmark government procurement.

"[ODIN is] probably the biggest desktop outsourcing commitment any agency has made," said Jim Hogan, president of Wang Government Services. "It's history. Overall, I don't see any other ODINs coming out in the next three months."

While some agencies will test the waters of desktop outsourcing with a small number of machines, few have put together a strategic plan to outsource entire enterprises as NASA has done, Hogan said.

JPL Embraces Outsourcing

One entity that has gone enterprisewide with desktop outsourcing is NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which awarded a contract in December to OAO Corp. to outsource the laboratory's 8,000 desktop computers. OAO last week opened its first remote command center in California, where officials manage all operational functions of JPL computers

Eventually, through this remote command center, OAO officials will be able to monitor minute operational details, such as the temperature of a machine or whether its cover has been removed. The OAO team will deploy an online graphical interface that will allow remote software upgrades and error corrections and provide trend analysis data about the desktop machines at JPL.

Phil Davis, senior vice president of the aerospace systems group at OAO, said the company has taken a similar approach in its ODIN strategy.

One of the biggest challenges for desktop outsourcing jobs is to understand and handle the cultural change associated with an agency turning over the ownership and management of its computers to another entity, he noted.

"People are used to the PCs being theirs," Davis said. "NASA's mission is science and engineering and research. The contractors have to understand, appreciate, respect and cater to those scientists and engineers."

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