Focus shifts to performance

When they hit the Enter key on their keyboards, General Services Administration em.ployees have one concern: How long will it take for the department's network and computers to respond?

Early last year, the agency turned to Global Analytic Information Technology Services Inc. (GAITS), a systems integrator, to ensure that response times are adequate. During the past 12 months, GSA's information technology department constructed a testing laboratory—primarily with EcoScope monitoring tools from Compuware Corp.—so GSA could determine how new and existing applications perform on its local- and wide-area networks.

The work underscores the evolving nature of government IT departments. With networks becoming larger and applications more complex, IT shops increasingly are handing over various management chores to outside parties.

As that occurs, IT executives become the middlemen between their business units and contractors. Many observers expect this transformation to continue so that in the future, IT departments will operate like internal outsourcers, managing contracts that establish network and system performance objectives for department applications—also known as service-level agreements (SLAs).

But much work remains to be done. The tools needed to gauge end-to-end network and system performance have just begun to arrive, and agencies need to learn how to take advantage of them. In addition, IT departments need to be reorganized into outsourcing arms, and agreements between those components and business units must be hammered out.

Agencies need the ability to determine how well the new arrangements are working. SLAs are designed to address that requirement. They are formal contracts between service providers and IT customers that establish objectives, such as minimum system availability, network throughput and problem resolution times.

"Usually, SLAs include penalty clauses—typically some type of refund or discount—whenever a vendor fails to meet an objective, say, maximum downtime," said Brian Burba, vice president of product marketing at Concord Communications Inc., an SLA software supplier.

The practice has been gaining popularity. "Just about every WAN services contract now includes an SLA component," said Tom Snyder, vice president of government sales at Visual Networks Inc., an SLA vendor.

Often, the contractor has to purchase new monitoring tools so the company can gather SLA performance data. For instance, Signal Corp., a systems integrator, manages a national backbone network for the Department of Veterans Affairs. To manage the network, which supports more than 250,000 users and 170 regional centers, the integrator deployed probes from NetScout Systems Inc.

"Once all the monitoring software is in place, we will be able to measure response time and monitor Internet throughput for any point on the network," said Michael Haskett, a network technician at Signal.

Some observers say such models will be applied internally so that IT departments are more accountable for the service they provide to their users. In that case, network and system performance would determine an IT director's — as well as IT staff members'—job performance and even salary, because bonuses are tied to reaching performance goals.

The groundwork for making such a transition is already in place at many agencies. "Since the days of the mainframe, IT departments and business units had documents that outline response time and availability objectives," said Robert Clark, federal regional sales manager at BMC Software Inc.

But there are differences between those internal arrangements and SLAs. First, monitoring tasks were simpler a few years ago. Historically, agencies relied on host-based applications, so determining when a system needed more memory or a network required more bandwidth was straightforward.

Today, agencies use complex, multi-tier, client/server systems that reach across numerous connection points. Often, agencies lack the tools to identify a trouble spot, which can be a PC, the LAN, a local network switch, the WAN, a Web server, a database management system or an application.

The management tools have improved recently (see "Choosing the right performance tool," Page 36), but many IT departments are not organized to take advantage of them. "Rather than focus on end-to-end management, IT management groups concentrate on one piece of the puzzle," said Steve Ferry, director of the Sun Microsystems Inc. technical team at GTSI Corp. For instance, one group is concerned with database performance, another handles network problems, and a third works with servers.

Writing an SLA can also be tedious. The user and provider must set acceptable response-time requirements, agree to specific measuring metrics and establish nonperformance penalties.

And previous mainframe SLAs served more as guidelines for groups that strived to meet objectives rather than formal documents directly impacting em.ployee performance. Determining who sets internal SLA goals and how to tie them to compensation can be tricky.

"In industries such as financial services, a company can correlate network and system availability to the bottom line. That is not as easy with government agencies," BMC's Clark said.

There is also the issue of how to track the IT department's performance. "There have been cases where technicians rigged reports so it looked like they were meeting performance objectives while they were actually falling short," said Cal Braunstein, president of the Robert Frances Group Inc.

Consequently, use of internal SLAs is rare in the federal government. But that may change. The adoption of Web technology means networks and systems will be available to employees, customers and suppliers around the clock.

That will force agencies to investigate new application delivery models. "GSA wants to move to an [application service provider] model where its services are available to different departments via the Web," said Tom Asefi, chief information officer at GAITS. However, such plans represent long-term changes; the ASP model has experienced a few bumps in its takeoff.

In the interim, adoption of internal SLAs plods along. "We've been surprised at the slow deployment of internal SLAs," Concord's Burba said. "In hindsight, we recognize that it represents a major shift in how agencies manage their IT resources, and such changes seldom come quickly."

Korzeniowski is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Mass., who specializes in technology issues. His e-mail address is paulkorzen@aol.com.

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