NIH division completes gradual VAX phaseout

When the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences turned off its Vaxcluster last spring, not many people noticed.

The institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, had gradually migrated most of its software applications to a set of 44 Microsoft Corp. Windows NT and Unix servers over two years, creating a modern, World Wide Web-based network for 1,600 research scientists, contractors and administrators.

Old applications already had been migrated or retired, while new ones, made possible by the Web, had started to take root.

Now the institute is positioned to take advantage of new technologies, including a recently installed video server for distributing presentations. Although many agencies are migrating to Web-based applications, NIEHS may be one of only a few organizations that has switched off its legacy systems and moved both its mission and support applications to a common platform.

"The fact that we eliminated the old allows us to put in the new," said Nancy Stegman, chief information officer at NIEHS.

"I think they attempted to build an IT infrastructure here that fundamentally provides seamless use of key administrative software and scientific software," said Hunter Robinson, program manager with OAO Corp., which holds one of several support contracts NIEHS used to help with the migration.

In addition, the upgrades have enabled NIEHS to more easily share applications with other parts of NIH, including some in-house grant management software - the latest version of which was finished last month - that is expected to be made available agencywide soon.

"Over time we may in fact have a closer relationship with [the rest of NIH]," Stegman said. "The Web-based architecture allows [it]. It makes [sharing applications] very convenient for users in all the institutes, and differences in architecture are not important."

The project has brought some intangible benefits to the 33-year-old institute as well: a closer relationship between end-users and information technology staff. "I've had a chance through some committee work to interact with some really talented people," said Alex Merrick, a toxicologist who does cancer research at NIEHS. "In the future, what I'd like to see happen is the end user be able to work effectively with computing folks to find creative solutions, rather than them working separately."

Merrick helped the IT staff convert a paper-based system for obtaining materials for experiments into an online application that speeds order processing and delivery. This and other new browser-enabled administrative applications "allow you more time to really focus on your research," he said. "That is always the challenge: to minimize distractions, to keep focused on your laboratory work and writing up your results."

The new architecture also has made programmers' work easier, said Donna Byrd, a computer specialist with the institute. "It has alleviated some of the frustration [in] trying to deliver applications to PC and Mac clients," she said. Agency desktops are divided almost equally between the two platforms, which were used as terminals to the Vaxcluster in addition to office automation.

NIEHS was prompted to modernize when NIH, following Office of Management and Budget orders that federal agencies consolidate their data centers by 1998, told the institute it would have to shut its VAXes down.

"Initially, the idea was we would merge with some other small VAX data centers," Stegman said. "For various reasons, that didn't come to pass. [NIH] said, 'OK, now what are you going to do? You're not going to have a data center anymore.' It became necessary to think about what was our strategy, long-term."


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