USDA takes first step toward integrated net

The Agriculture Department last month released a draft statement of work for a program to migrate the department to a single telecommunications network. The program is expected to reduce the agency's telecommunications costs and improve network performance.

The Telecommunications Enterprise Network (TEN) program is designed to allow the USDA to move all of its agencies to a common set of equipment and provide a common core of network transmission and management services.

In the past, the General Accounting Office and Congress have criticized the USDA for wasting millions of dollars a year because of poor telecommunications management. The TEN program is an effort to change that.

Currently, the USDA has a number of legacy telecommunications networks, said Keith Jackson, associate chief information officer for telecommunications services and operations at the USDA. "The long-term goal is...for those networks to come together and share economies of scale," he said.

Migrating to a single network will provide significant savings, in part by reducing the number of redundant circuits on the network, Jackson said. Additionally, the consolidation "allows you to better manage your network as far as optimal performance, allows you to better plan and [address] new and emerging requirements, and allows you to better manage security on the network," he said.

The TEN program's draft statement of work, on which the USDA is seeking comment, calls for a contractor to transition the existing telecommunications services, equipment and networks to the consolidated network and to build a network operations center to manage the system. The network center is expected to oversee the performance, security and availability of the network.

The USDA already has under way a program that will allow multiple agencies in 21 cities to share and consolidate services. "We look at those 21 cities to be significant nodes as we move to the enterprise network," Jackson said.

The USDA considers the transition to the government's FTS 2001 service as the first phase of the TEN program, Jackson said. MCI WorldCom, which was chosen by the USDA as its FTS 2001 telecommunications provider, is expected to provide some transition services starting this fiscal year.

Other agencies should take advantage of the transition to FTS 2001 to evaluate the needs of their own telecommunications networks, said Warren Suss, president of Warren H. Suss Associates, Jenkintown, Pa.

"It's appropriate [for agencies] to ask whether they can consolidate certain functions in a centralized way to relieve subagencies of the administrative burdens" of managing a network, Suss said. "I think that is the right way to go for those that can move quickly, but it's a challenge to move that quickly."

The USDA is not the only agency that has struggled with effectively keeping tabs on telecommunications services and equipment, Suss said. "There are a lot of agencies that have a hard time understanding what they have today," he said. "Steps to resolve this have been forced on them by the FTS 2001 transition."

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