NIH awards four networking pacts

The National Institutes of Health on Thursday awarded four networking contracts that together are worth up to $100 million over the next five years. These awards complete a trio of procurements to modernize and support the agency's computing infrastructure.

The winning vendors - Digicon Corp., Integrated Communication Solutions Inc. (ICS), MRJ Technology Solutions and Unisys Corp. - will compete under the CERTAN Network Infrastructure program to upgrade and support NIH's high-speed network backbone and more than 300 local-area networks for 15,000 users. The procurement is part of Project CERTAN (Computer Equipment Resources and Technology Acquisition for NIH), which also includes previously awarded contracts that provide mainframe equipment and general information technology support services.

Julius Tidwell, contracting officer for the program, declined to say specifically how NIH will use the contracts. But agency documents outline plans to deploy Asynchronous Transfer Mode technology to support voice, data and desktop video services throughout the agency.

"The various demands on the network combine to really push the state of the art here in terms of the NIH applications," such as biomedical imaging and telemedicine, said Warren Suss, a Jenkintown, Pa., telecommunications consultant. "No. 1, they're trying to rationalize the operations and maintenance and upgrade of the network, and [No.] 2, technically, they're trying to address some very advanced user needs."

NIH's current network infrastructure is based on a 100 megabits/sec Fiber Distributed Data Interface. NIH sites connect to the network using fiber-based Ethernet connections, while some remote sites, including other federal agencies and research hospitals, primarily use T-1 (1.5 megabits/sec) lines. Recently, NIH has piloted ATM technology at a few sites.

Suss said NIH has networking needs similar to those at other federal research agencies - such as the Energy Department and NASA - that work with images and simulations from supercomputing applications.

The four vendors will enter a competitive contracting environment. Networking equipment and services already are available on several NIH contracts, as well as General Services Administration schedules and other governmentwide vehicles. Tidwell said CERTAN Network Infrastructure "is specifically tailored to NIH needs," but he declined to elaborate on what makes it different from other vehicles.

"It is our opinion that this contract will eventually be used and be a vehicle for NIH to obtain the services they're looking for," said John Marrama, president and chief executive officer of ICS, Frederick, Md. "But it's our opinion that NIH is a very competitive environment, and they have structured this [program] in that way.''

NIH research institutes and centers purchase their own computing equipment, but the agency's Center for Information Technology, which sponsored Project CERTAN, provides end-user and network support for these offices. Recently, NIH has sought ways to better coordinate its computing expenditures. ICS specializes in networking, security and telemedicine services. The company currently holds contracts with the Justice Department, the Indian Health Service, the State Department and intelligence agencies.

Specialties of MRJ Technology Solutions, Fairfax, Va., include supercomputer support, which it provides for NASA's Ames Research Center, as well as high-end networking, data mining and visualization. Digicon, Rockville, Md., and Unisys, McLean, Va., are integrators that hold diverse federal contracts, including pacts under NIH's Chief Information Officer Solutions and Partners program.

Joseph Santamaria, vice president and general manager for integrated government solutions with Unisys Federal Systems, said Unisys estimates that it will capture $50 million worth of business from the contract - half of what NIH has allocated.

NIH started planning Project CERTAN four years ago and released its solicitation for the network infrastructure procurement in November 1997. Since procurement reform laws took effect in 1994, agencies have been completing acquisitions in much shorter periods of time, but Tidwell said this one "could not have been done any quicker. There were no big holdups."

The agency awarded two CERTAN Information Technology Support Services contracts worth $165 million to SRA International Inc. and Science Applications International Corp. in December 1996 and selected FDC Technologies Inc. for its $55 million CERTAN Corporate Computing contract a few weeks later. A fourth CERTAN procurement, for supercomputers, was canceled in mid-1997.

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