FAA flying right with new e-mail system

The Federal Aviation Administration recently transitioned 40,000 employees to a new e-mail system in just nine months. Messages now reach their recipients in a matter of minutes instead of an hour, according to agency officials.

Ever since IBM Corp., the lead contractor on the project, completed the first phase of the Next Generation Messaging System (NexGen) program in December 2002, agency officials have been touting the move as an all-around success.

"We're told by IBM that's as fast a rollout as they've seen in the public sector," said Daniel Mehan, the FAA's chief information officer.

The FAA awarded a 10-year contract, valued at $30 million, to IBM in June 2001 to develop an enterprisewide replacement for its existing system, based on cc:Mail — a program from IBM subsidiary Lotus Development Corp. that the company no longer supports.

IBM had to develop a system that provided all of cc:Mail version 8.4's tools and added new functions, including collaboration, fax and scheduling capabilities, according to the agency's requirements.

"The bottom line was that Lotus cc wasn't going to be maintained and we wanted a system we could interface" across the Transportation Department, said Dennis DeGaetano, the FAA's deputy associate administrator for research and acquisitions.

The agency chose IBM's Lotus Notes as the foundation, a move that concerned some officials because other DOT agencies mostly use Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange. IBM, however, solved that problem by installing a Lightweight Directory Access Protocol server to act as a translator among the systems. To make that gateway a reality, the company coordinated with multiple parties, including the FAA and other DOT agencies.

"We took great pains to ensure that interoperability," Mehan said.

There were other technology triumphs. The FAA consolidated 855 e-mail "post offices," the directories where e-mail is stored, to 12 "message stores," as they're now called. And the agency cut support staff from about 400 to 76 administrators.

Benefits from those reductions include faster message delivery and improved cybersecurity, officials said. Operational savings alone will cover the system's cost within three years, according to Mehan.

"It's a pretty intuitive system," DeGaetano said. "The biggest issue was it looked different. It wasn't much trouble in terms of transition.

"We probably had 40,000 opinions on what it should look like," he continued.

"We would like to think the FAA has shown tremendous foresight in getting everyone on a common platform," said Joe Morrison, IBM's program manager for NexGen. The company will use the program as a model for other agencies, he added.

In later phases, the agency plans to add capabilities such as instant messaging and conferencing, officials said. Future enhancements could focus on accessibility — for instance, linking the system to wireless phones and personal digital assistants, "depending on the need or benefit," DeGaetano said.

Already, the FAA's administrator and some other employees are using their Research in Motion Ltd. BlackBerry handheld devices to access their e-mail accounts on the go, he said.

Adding more applications to the messaging system is possible because the FAA chose an infrastructure that allows for such flexibility, IBM officials said.

"Now the FAA can leverage what's happening in industry and the world," Morrison said. "The level of communication is vastly improved."

Close cooperation guarantees success

A close working relationship between the Federal Aviation Administration and IBM Corp. contributed to the successful deployment of the Next Generation Messaging System (NexGen), according to agency officials.

Preparing employees was critical to the program's success, said David Abel, a partner with IBM's Business Consulting Services' federal practice. The "FAA ensured [that] local site staff and end users were ready for deployment," he said.

Both parties got together on a quarterly basis to review whether agreed-upon milestones had been met. The completion of those milestones was tied to invoicing for parts of the contract that were performance-based, officials said.

Falling into that category were tasks FAA officials felt they could easily define, including transitioning 40,000 users to the new system, said Joe Morrison, IBM's program manager for NexGen. "We know that's the end goal."


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