Rethinking federal networks

The ability to capture, analyze and apply information gives the United States its edge in dominating the battlefield and winning wars. Bandwidth restrictions blunt this edge.

John Stenbit, the Defense Department's chief information officer, wants to remove the bandwidth restrictions by taking advantage of the current industrywide glut in fiber capacity. To implement Stenbit's idea, the Defense Information Systems Agency will buy capacity and equipment at fire-sale prices and control and operate its own high-capacity, high-security, state-of-the-art network.

We can all learn from Stenbit. Traditionally, we manage networks incrementally. We focus on the economics of keeping one step ahead of user demand.

Stenbit is focusing on a long-term horizon because of his concern with the bandwidth demands of next-generation weapons systems. He also made a quantum leap by moving to the economics of dark fiber—fiber that has been laid but remains unused — instead of the economics of traditional carrier services. He tied his investment directly to his most critical departmentwide mission — fighting and winning wars.

Now, I'm not arguing that all of Stenbit's decisions are correct. He may have pushed DOD too far in terms of technology, and he may incur unanticipated costs for operations and maintenance. But you've got to hand it to him for thinking outside the box.

What Stenbit did was bold, but in some ways, it is only a first step in rethinking federal networks.

The economics of industry and the politics of government have changed so much that we need to change our thinking across the board about network investments. Can we think like Stenbit and make other problems go away? How much money, time and energy do we spend in micro-managing the difference between the supply of network services and the demand for network services? Would an investment today at fire-sale prices in next generation network systems and services result in even greater savings in personnel and processes used in network management?

The government might be able to eliminate unnecessary headaches and costs associated with billing and rebilling if network technology was bought and managed differently.

The economics of industry may have changed enough that agencies need to review decisions about what they own and what they purchase as a service. It may be time to rethink the approach to the design and operation of networks to minimize or eliminate the costs and disruptions of future transitions.

Shifting focus from costs to benefits may be the biggest challenge in rethinking federal networks. In many ways, networks and other information technology infrastructure elements have been relegated to the basement along with agencies' plumbing and electricity. Yet more and more agencies rely on network technologies for their service delivery and productivity.

We need to rethink federal networks to deliver mission-focused results that ensure continued support from agencies' senior executives, the Office of Management and Budget, Congress and, in the end, the American people we serve.

Suss is president of Suss Consulting Inc., an IT consulting company based in Jenkintown, Pa.

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