Air Force takes PC outsourcing to new level

While many Defense organizations still shy away from the idea of relinquishing control of their desktop computing environment, the Air Force broke new ground last month when it awarded a contract that expands the federal government's traditional approach to seat management.

The contract, awarded to Federal Data Corp. (FDC), includes a task order through the General Services Administration's Seat Management program to support 220 Special Operations Forces personnel at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. The deal includes an option to expand services to more than 24,000 Air Force users throughout the Dayton, Ohio, region, which would make it one of the largest seat management projects in government.

The Air Force pact, like other projects, calls for the contractor to assume responsibility for hardware, software and network management, help-desk support and asset management. The Air Force can use the contract as a vehicle to migrate its users to Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 2000 operating system when it becomes available and to deploy a secure local-area network.

But unlike the few seat management contracts awarded in government, the Air Force deal also includes World Wide Web page development and maintenance, as well as a full range of enterprise management tools, such as contract and human resources management applications and database development.

"This is an interesting expansion of traditional seat management services into more 'application service provider' type functionality," said Chip Mather, senior vice president at Chantilly, Va.-based Acquisition Solutions Inc.

"Customers increasingly are becoming less concerned about the technology and more concerned about the functionality, [and] viewing computing as a service is an important trend, and one that I fully support," Mather said. "It places the focus on performance and not technology."

Seat management generally is intended to enable agencies to free up employees from managing desktop computers so that they can concentrate more on core agency work.

To date, the two main seat management contracts have been GSA's Seat Management and the Outsourcing Desktop Initiative for NASA (ODIN), both of which are available governmentwide.

Seat management has been taking hold throughout the federal sector slowly, with some agencies more open to the idea than others. For example, the Health Care Financing Administration in April outsourced 4,000 desktops through ODIN, which agency officials at the time said would enable them to improve asset management and refresh technology in a timelier manner. Likewise, the Treasury Department in June tapped Wang Government Services for a 10-year, $88 million task order to manage the PCs of some 1,600 headquarters employees.

DOD, while open to outsourcing various functions in piecemeal fashion, historically has balked at the idea of handing over large numbers of desktops and other systems to commercial vendors.

Air Force director of communications Lt. Gen. William Donahue said he would look at seat management "where it makes sense" and as long as good processes and practices are involved.

GSA and the Air Force designed the contract to address these issues. "This is a small pilot, and [it] was selected because it involves a self-contained [LAN] that presented a good test bed," said Christopher Wren, program director of GSA's Seat Program Office.

Although Wren said it is not unusual to augment traditional seat management services with service-level support, such as Web page development, most people do not know they can get these types of services under seat management, he said.

"This is the closest thing to the complete level of services that can be provided under seat management that we've seen yet," said Phil Panzarella, vice president of the mid-Atlantic region for Entex Information Services Inc., one of FDC's partners. Other partners include Comdisco Inc., Compaq Computer Corp., ICES Ltd. and UCR Inc.

Understanding a customer's mission and culture is the most crucial aspect of seat management, said Robert Guerra, president of Robert J. Guerra and Associates. "The vendor cannot change a customer's culture," Guerra said. "Rather, the vendor has to be able to adapt the technology to support the customer's culture and mission. That is where [FDC] is very strong."

Paul Taltavull, senior vice president of FDC, said that while the services being provided under this pilot contract appear broad in nature, they actually are the "core services" provided to all seat management customers.

"Seat management really does represent cost savings and offers the potential for agencies to focus on their core missions," Taltavull said. In that respect, he said, "DOD is no different than civilian agencies."

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