Charting new territory

The lure of tapping outside expertise was strong for Social Security Administration officials when they embarked on a massive upgrade of the agency's data network under the FTS 2001 telecommunications program.

Officials planned to upgrade SSA's outdated 56 kilobits/sec dedicated circuit network with a much faster Asynchronous Transfer Mode Frame Relay network, but agency officials worried that the training employees would require on the new technology could slow the migration or disrupt operations that relied on the network.

Working hand-in-hand with the General Services Administration, SSA officials were able to work through elaborate FTS 2001 contract modifications and hire FTS vendor WorldCom Inc. to build and fully staff a network operations center to support the agency's new architecture.

"It was like walking into a candy store and wondering where to start," said Roland Washington, SSA's director of integrated telecommunications management, of the agency's foray into advanced networking services, which are now more readily available under FTS 2001.

Many of the newer networking services, such as outsourced network management and IP-based virtual private networks (VPNs), were once regarded as FTS 2001 specialty items that required significant contracting legwork, but are now available as standing FTS 2001 offerings. Others can be added in condensed time frames and are generally far more accessible to federal telecom customers.

"In the old days, it was our view that the FTS 2001 contract was scoped wrong," said Rick Slifer, WorldCom's director of FTS services. "We now view it as a contracting vehicle that is adapting to the changing telecom needs of agencies. Now we are able to move as fast as our customers move."

Although SSA officials bought the suite of managed services about two years ago, before FTS 2001 vendors were able to move so quickly, it nonetheless proved a shot in the arm during the agency's major network transition, Washington said.

"The immediate returns on that investment centered on the work of WorldCom [staff], who were here assisting with this all-new infrastructure as agency employees got up to speed," he said.

Indeed, newer networking services are most attractive to agencies undergoing infrastructure upgrades or transitioning from FTS 2000 to FTS 2001, said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting Inc., a Jenkintown, Pa., IT consulting firm.

"Transition time is an important time for agencies, because there is [pressure] to upgrade their networks and services at the same time," Suss said.

For SSA, that was certainly the case. The agency used not only the work of 17 full-time WorldCom employees stationed at SSA's National Computer Center in Baltimore, but also a physical link to WorldCom's Global Network Managing Center in Cary, N.C., to get additional help when needed.

"It provides us with a direct link to engineering support and operational support, since we have access to network design engineers working off the managed service offering," Washington said.

Although SSA officials said the FTS 2001 contract modifications they made to support their network upgrade were handled smoothly, that hasn't been the case for other agencies. GSA officials acknowledged that many agencies have faced lengthy delays during the modification process.

"When we first started trying to add complex managed services, we had to go through the definition of requirements and look at departments one at a time," said Denny Groh, deputy associate commissioner for service delivery at GSA's Federal Technology Service. "It took the better part of six months to put those under contract."

FTS 2001 contract modifications now are processed in an average of 38 days, according to GSA. And overall, FTS network services acquisition cycles have improved 15 percent during the past year.

Even before those improvements, SSA was prompted in part by positive experiences with the FTS 2001 contracting process to use the vehicle to buy additional services after completing its network transition. For example, last summer the agency added VPN capabilities, replacing remote local-area network access. The VPN service enables SSA employees to access e-mail and the agency's intranet securely from remote locations using commercial Internet connections.

SSA officials are now pondering using FTS 2001 to meet new security goals, Washington said.

Although officials have not made a final decision, the accessibility of FTS 2001 services will weigh into the purchasing route they take. "The fact that we know that encryption of the network is easily available to us via FTS 2001 and WorldCom is a factor," Washington said.

But another factor could be SSA's efforts to diversify the vendor pool that services its network infrastructure. Such diversity is now a common goal among federal IT officials, whose buying decisions are influenced by last year's terrorist attacks and the corporate financial woes plaguing the sector, Washington and others said.

Yet Washington stopped short of saying that any decision to hire a vendor other than WorldCom would hinge on the outcome of the carrier's recent tumble into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In fact, he said that SSA has experienced no change in the carrier's ability to meet its FTS 2001 responsibilities.

Furthermore, some argue that the fate of WorldCom and other hard-hit players did not trigger the current quest for carrier diversity. Neither can economic or national events be solely implicated, said WorldCom's Slifer.

"Officials were looking at diversity, redundancy and survivability of networks before Sept. 11," he said. "But it has definitely intensified since then."

Jones is a freelance writer based in Vienna, Va.

***

Hired hands

Agency: Social Security Administration

Challenge: Finding outside experts who could design a network upgrade, provide access to a network operations center backup site and handle management of the new networking infrastructure while in-house personnel adjusted to the upgrade.

Solution: Entered into a managed services agreement with WorldCom Inc. through an FTS 2001 contract modification.

Cost: About $30 million.

Agency benefit: Staff resources were preserved, and design flaws, technology hurdles and operational disruptions were minimized during the transition.

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