Stat-USA plans all-PC network

To drive down the cost of providing statistical economic data to businesses worldwide,
a small Commerce Department program plans to move its work exclusively to a PC network.


For now, the Stat-USA program hosts its World Wide Web pages from two Sun Microsystems
Inc. Sparcserver 10 workstations. But the goal is to shift to a PC-only network running
Windows NT.


"The network is always changing to stay current," said Paul Christy, deputy
director of Stat-USA, ''Our network is like the Internet,'' he said. ''We are very
decentralized.''


''The covers are usually off some of the machines,'' Christy said. ''We are always
adding something to the network.''


The bulk of the network is 30 166-MHz Pentiums, with 32M of RAM and at least 2G hard
drives, running Windows NT. For network communications, Stat-USA relies on Banyan Vines
from Banyan Systems Inc. of Westborough, Mass.


''Network crashes are not a problem,'' Christy said.


When one of Stat-USA's PCs died recently, the data on its hard drive was temporarily
transferred to another PC. Nothing was lost in the crash.


It's unlikely that all 30 computers would crash simultaneously, Christy said, so when
one does go down, the remaining machines in the network easily pick up the slack.


Stat-USA combs through government and Commerce Department databases collecting
information wanted by businesses in the United States and around the world. A lot of the
information is about trade issues and other timely topics that require continual uploads
of new data.


''We have to get the information quickly and get it out to the people who need it,''
Stat-USA director Ken Rogers said. One of the organization's strongest tools is its T1
link to the Internet.


Rogers said Commerce soon may abandon the Sun workstations in favor of a total PC
network.


Stat-USA also runs a bulletin board system with 64 incoming lines.


''Even if the information is on the Internet, some people want a direct connection,''
Rogers said. ''Some people look at bulletin boards as old technology, but depending on
where you are, the Web can be slow. This gives people a direct dial-up line to get them
into our system.''


Using writable CD-ROM drives, data also is written to disks that can be mailed to
customers who want archived information at their own offices. In 1993, Stat-USA developed
the first electronic version of the budget, putting the entire federal spending plan on
CD-ROM.


An unfunded agency within Commerce, Stat-USA is supposed to cover operational costs
through the fees it charges for the statistical products. When Commerce created Stat-USA
in 1994, the agency lost $450,000. In 1996, it broke even.


Because Stat-USA isn't allowed a profit, breaking even is the best possible result,
Rogers said. The agency had 7,000 paying subscribers using its Internet service last year
and generated $700,000 in sales.


The little agency's approach to using PC networks also has drawn the attention of some
senior department chiefs. Stat-USA employees now are helping the department rebuild its
infrastructure of 64 field offices.


Both Rogers and Christy said PC networks are the optimal solution for many federal data
collection and dissemination efforts. Hardware maintenance costs go down when an office
does away with its minicomputers and mainframes, they said.


''With our network, it's often cheaper to add a new machine as needed than to upgrade
all the old ones,'' Christy said. ''If we need more power, we get a new computer.''


About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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