ATF out front with seat management

While skeptical federal agencies mull the pros and cons of seat management, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms already has installed desktop computers, laptops, office automation software and local-area networks agencywide under a $30 million seat management pact with Unisys Corp. it awarded last fall.

Through seat management "desk- top outsourcing,'' agencies lease, rather than purchase, equipment from vendors that also provide training, maintenance and help-desk support services. Within the last few weeks, NASA and the General Services Administration each have awarded broad-based seat management contracts.

Between January and April, ATF used the contract to upgrade desktop and mobile systems for 4,000 employees at 188 offices nationwide and provide them with a common e-mail platform and Internet access for the first time.

Patrick Schambach, chief information officer with ATF, said he thinks a market for seat management contracts will develop because this acquisition strategy allows agencies to deploy current technology, spread out their expenditures and manage upgrades, training and maintenance through a single vendor.

"What this allowed for us, and the reason many agencies are going to jump on it, is you can have all your employees upgraded practically overnight, and you get the immediate benefits of having [them] on one platform,'' he said. Although seat management could cost agencies more in "raw dollars,'' agencies need to think ahead to when they need to replace technology, Schambach said. "If you can establish a level payment stream...you have built-in refreshment.''

Agencies like ATF, with many remote users and small IT staffs, may be the primary market for seat management contracts, suggested information technology consultant Robert Guerra. "In a very, very stable, nonchanging environment, seat management doesn't make sense,'' he said. "But where you have a highly decentralized organization, [and] where advancing technology really supports the mission, seat management really makes sense.''

The delivery of the desktop equipment and LANs, which ATF is leasing for three years, completes the installation of the agency's Enterprise Systems Architecture, which is designed to support common office applications as well as access to mission-related applications, such as ballistics databases and a case management system.

"We're basically going to client/server on all our applications, and we needed the platforms to roll that out,'' Schambach said.

Among the benefits of the upgrade, Schambach said, are access by employees and the public to reference materials, including historical data on licenses and permits, current agency regulations and "hundreds of forms'' over the Internet.

Consolidating the agency's three e-mail systems into one— Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange— will make it easier to disseminate information internally as well, he said.

Olga Grkavac, senior vice president with the Information Technology Association of America, said other agencies may need to see the results from a "test model'' like ATF before they commit to the approach. "If the ATF experience turns out to be positive, it might get people who are wary of it off the fence,'' she said. "Even things that didn't go well would still be valuable because they're lessons learned.''

Both Schambach and Michael Glaser, the Unisys account executive for the contract, said the agency and the company faced some "bumps'' at the start of the contract, especially when it came to defining what customers expected from their contractor.

"I think both ATF and Unisys underestimated the complexity of doing this job,'' Glaser said, but the installation was completed within a couple of weeks of the deadline ATF set because agency managers were clear about what they needed.

As new equipment was being installed, Unisys ran nearly 300 training classes to teach users— some of whom had been using PCs with 286 processors— the nuts and bolts of Microsoft Windows 95, Microsoft Word, e-mail, Netscape and mainframe access on the systems. For the duration of the pact, Unisys will be responsible for maintaining the systems and providing help-desk support.

As an integrator, Unisys already had experience with network integration jobs. But Guerra said that wrapping up all the required seat management services into a complete package will be a challenge for vendors "just used to selling PCs.'' Seat management "is a solution sale. You have to really go in and focus on what the customer is trying to accomplish in their mission," he added.

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