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DISA's inexpensive, two-button approach to collaboration attracts thousands of users

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The Defense Department's launch of approved collaboration tools has triggered rapid growth in networked interactions by its uniformed warfighters and civilian personnel, largely because of its unique approach of giving users a choice between two sets of commercially developed services, project officials said.

Last November, the Defense Information Systems Agency finished its implementation of DOD's standardized collaboration services by putting the final touches on Defense Connection Online. The services are offered by systems integrator Carahsoft as the second of two sets of services that make up the collaborative elements of DISA's Network-Centric Enterprise Services (NCES).

Last July, DISA finished its deployment of the first set of collaboration capabilities, the E-CollabCenter suite of services offered by IBM. The two services combined have tens of thousands of accounts.

E-CollabCenter is based on IBM Lotus Sametime collaboration software. The Defense Connection Online offers capabilities such as instant messaging, text chat, Web conferencing and shared whiteboards through partnerships with Carahsoft, Adobe Systems, Jabber and Science Applications International.

The collaborative tools represent DISA's first attempt to provide a service that is built from commercial applications, as is the approach of offering two sets of side-by-side services developed and provided by separate vendors that compete for the loyalty of individual DOD users, DISA officials said.

The biggest benefit of DISA's approach is that it removes the burden of creating, launching and managing the services from DOD and places it on the vendors, officials said. It also cuts DOD's cost considerably because in contracting for the services, the department defined only the functions it needed, not the technical specifications of the services.

In addition, the government bore no costs for developing the services because they are based on the vendors' commercial products, said Rebecca Harris, principal director of DISA's NCES initiative. DOD contracted to pay only for service usage, so it pays just for the number of hours its users log monthly on the two services.

The services are provided as turnkey managed services hosted in commercial data centers paid for by the vendors, which frees DOD from deploying any of the hardware or software associated with the services.

'All of this goodness has been achieved at no cost to the government,' Harris said. As of late February, DISA had almost 400,000 accounts for the services, counting both the IBM and Carahsoft service options and both classified and unclassified accounts, Harris said.

Of the total, IBM's E-CollabCenter services had 19,900 users with accounts for unclassified services on the military's Non-secure IP Router Network and 8,300 accounts for classified services on the Secret IP Router Network. Carahsoft's Defense Connection Online services had 6,000 accounts for unclassified NIPRNet services and 2,800 accounts for classified SIPRNet services.

The disparity in numbers of accounts is because of DISA's staggered launch of the services.

The number of people signing up each week for new accounts is pretty much equally divided between the two vendors, officials said.

On average, about 500 people request new accounts each week for the collaborative tools.

Already, DOD's users are logging 3,500 to 4,000 hours of videoconferencing a month and conducting hundreds of thousands of online chats monthly, Harris said.

The Air Force Space Command is adopting the collaboration services for use by all of its personnel, and officials think the services are at the point where staff members can start to use them for routine communications, said Brig. Gen.

David Warner, chief information officer and director of logistics and warfighting integration for the command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.

From a user's perspective, the ability to choose between the two collaboration options means it's more likely that the services will have the feel, features and performance that users want, Warner said.

'I think the services will suit the majority of our needs, but if there are any needs that it doesn't meet, we'll add our voices to the choir,' he said.

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