Navy to award IT-21 contract for ship LANs

The Information Technology for the 21st Century (IT-21) project, which will enable the Navy to harness the power of commercial networks and computers aboard ships and ashore, will move closer to reality next week with the award of a key contract for shipboard local-area networks.

Capt. Tim Traverso, director of command, control, communications and computers for the commander in chief-Pacific Fleet, said the Navy plans to equip the major ships in six carrier battle groups and six amphibious ready groups with IT-21 by 2005.

With support ships and submarines added in, the Navy plans to have some or all of the IT-21 architecture installed in 266 ships by 2005, according to an IT-21 briefing furnished by Traverso to FCW. Based on what one vendor called "a minimal estimate" of $10 million per carrier and amphibious group, this would put the value of the IT-21 Afloat contract at "well over" $120 million, an industry source said.

The Navy has already installed IT-21 LANs on command ships in the 3rd and 7th Fleets as well as on ships in the USS Kitty Hawk carrier and the USS Belleau Wood amphibious ready group.

But for the new IT-21 Afloat contract, which will supply LANs throughout much of the rest of the fleet, the Navy decided to "change its acquisition strategy," said Scott Randall, director of the Global Information and Network Systems directorate at the Space and Naval Warfare Command (Spawar), San Diego.

Instead of dictating standards and specifications as it did for the recently completed IT-21 installations, Randall said Spawar decided to "provide vendors with much more latitude" in developing an architecture and solution.

Randall would not identify the bidders Spawar invited to submit proposals on IT-21, except to say that they each held "Navy umbrella contracts." FCW has learned that Electronic Data Systems Corp., IBM Corp., GTE Corp., Lucent Technologies and Science Applications International Corp., are finalists on the IT-21 Afloat contract.

Randall said Spawar told vendors "what we would like" in general but did not specify "what the proposed solution will be.... We are trying to get the most for our bucks."

The Navy, led by Adm. Archie Clemins, has said it wants to develop a global intranet for IT-21 based on Asynchronous Transfer Mode technology, which allows for transmission of voice, video and data over the same circuit.

A vendor familiar with the IT-21 Afloat contract said the Navy wants a solution that includes a high-speed ATM shipboard backbone but added that bidders will have "great latitude" in how they meet that requirement. The Navy kicked off its IT-21 project with bold plans to extend the shipboard ATM network directly to the desktop, but it backed off when the cost of desktop interface cards proved prohibitive.

Randall said he was aware of these concerns and said the Navy did not kick off the current competition with any preconceived notions on whether the ATM network should extend to the desktop.

"We'll look at the overall solution," Randall said. He said it was also up to the bidders to decide whether their proposed architecture included desktop computers hooked up to the network.

"More Bells and Whistles"

The decision to give vendors more flexibility will provide the Navy with proposals that include "more bells and whistles," said Warren Suss, a consultant with Warren H. Suss Associates, Jenkintown, Pa. "It enables the Navy to bring out some of the power that vendors have developed and helps them avoid a plain-vanilla, one-size-fits-all solution."

The emphasis on flexibility holds risks for the Navy and the bidders, said John Okay, senior vice president for telecommunications and special studies at Federal Sources Inc. The Navy may get "robust solutions that really meet their needs, or a halfway solution that someone can give them at a good price," Okay said. But without detailed specifications, vendors run the risk of going through the bidding process only to have the Navy decide it did not get the kind of solution it wanted, he said.

Despite risks, the Navy's approach "is a positive step forward," Okay said.

Randall would not dismiss a proposal that offered a leasing option. "If someone came in with a leasing proposal, I don't know why we would not consider it," he said. GTE and Lucent hold Voice, Video and Data contracts that contain leasing clauses.

Spawar has run a lean and fast procurement for IT-21 Afloat, Randall said. The Navy first asked eight bidders to submit a simple "white paper" proposal in July. This month, the Navy winnowed that field to five vendors, who will submit this week written proposals, in the form of no more than 30 Microsoft Corp. PowerPoint slides.

The bidders will present oral proposals Sept. 11.

Randall expects to make an award next week, explaining that Spawar needs to proceed quickly because the Navy wants to complete installation of LANs on two carrier battle groups and two amphibious ready groups by June 1999.

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