FEC experiments with utility computing

Virtual IT means better redundancy and responsiveness

The Federal Election Commission is dipping its toe into utility computing, in which IT services are provisioned from a pool of resources rather than from a dedicated infrastructure.

'We're starting out small,' said Jim Allen, infrastructure branch manager in FEC's IT division.

Under a five-year, $4.48 million contract with Savvis Federal Systems Inc. of Herndon, Va., FTP and mail routing will be delivered through what Savvis calls a virtualized IT delivery platform.

'I'm not really doing a lot with utility computing, I'm just trying it,' Allen said. 'It seems like an exciting concept.'

The concept is not new. Almost everyone gets electrical power from a utility rather than maintain their own generators, and voice mail service is taking over from answering machines. The same idea is being applied to IT services.

Virtualized or utility computing is one step above hosted services, in which a third party provides a home for equipment owned by a customer.

Savvis Federal vice president Don Teague describes it as 'one step to the right' of managed services, in which the service provider owns and manages hardware and software that is dedicated to the customer.

The idea is that by acquiring services from a general pool, provisioning can be done quickly and adjusted to meet changing needs.

Virtualized IT dates back to the late 1980s when virtual private networks, which provide private links over public networks, helped eliminate the need and cost of private lines.

'It dramatically changed the landscape of networking' once government became convinced that the performance and security of VPNs were real, Teague said. 'Now we're talking about a virtual IT infrastructure.'

Allen said he came across utility computing in his constant search for ways to stretch his IT resources.

'It's the nature of the job,' he said. 'I've got a lot of real-time, day-to-day problems,' in just keeping the agency's infrastructure up and running.

IT is critical to the FEC's ability to function as an overseer of political campaigns and enforcer of election laws. The agency does this work day in, day out, but activity peaks during the federal election cycles and climaxes during presidential campaigns.

'We're a small agency, about 350 people,' Allen said. 'To do what we do in an election year in a timely fashion, we have to use IT resources. Most candidates and committees file electronically with us,' and data is made available to the public electronically through the commission's Web site at www.fec.gov.

'They have phenomenal data requirements and they have phenomenal computing needs,' Teague said.

'It seems like utility computing might be a way of handling this,' Allen said.

But Allen is not jumping headlong into the shared-resource pool. Savvis is an incumbent service provider at FEC, and the bulk of its five-year contract is for traditional managed and hosted services, including network connectivity and spam and virus blocking. Teague said the commission is establishing a hybrid environment that will provide a migration path toward a virtualized infrastructure.

'What the FEC is doing is typical of what our commercial clients are doing,' he said. Deciding what services to migrate first depends on a number of factors, including the criticality of the application, the user's comfort level with outsourcing and how much already has been invested in hardware and software assets.

Allen says every application is critical eventually. The primary criterion in his selection of FTP and mail routing for outsourcing was age of the equipment.

'I had these older systems that needed to be replaced,' he said, and the mail servers were not redundant.

Expecting immediate benefits

The Savvis contract was only recently awarded and it is too early for specific numbers, but Allen said there would be some immediate returns on a utility computing investment.

'Right off the bat, I'm not going to be replacing this hardware,' he said. 'And now I'll have redundancy, which is an immediate benefit.'

He does not anticipate a reduction in workforce as one of the savings. His staff still has plenty of work seeing to the day-to-day operations, he said. Teague said that is typical of most customers who use virtual computing, because IT staffs typically already are stretched thin.

'It's [a] matter of repurposing' the freed-up manpower, both in the commercial and federal markets,' he said.

The FEC services are being provided from one of Savvis' 25 data centers, which are connected by an OC-192 backbone network. Savvis already provided FEC with its Internet connectivity and a high-speed link to its data center.

In a utility mode, 'geography is unimportant,' Teague said.

Allen agrees. 'I don't care where it's at, as long as it is up and operational and gives me five-nines availability.'

Service-level agreements are key to making utility computing work, and no utility is perfect. This was illustrated recently at FEC when one of its most basic utilities'electricity'went out.

'Sometimes the parts fail,' Allen said.

But the outage was the result of a tripped circuit breaker inside his building and is not a reflection of the dependability of utility computing, he said. Still, 'it was a good test' of his team's preparedness. 'Budgets are so tight right now. The risks will always be there and they have to be mitigated.'

Theoretically, any service or application could be outsourced as a utility.

'If it works, everything could be up for consideration,' Allen said.
But practically speaking, there are some things, such as FEC's primary databases, that are not likely to be virtualized soon.

'I would be very hesitant at this time to move that to this type of a model,' he said.

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