Use the Net and VPNs to manage comm wisely

Cost of ownership of desktop computers is much in the news lately. Seat
management--outsourcing PC operations--is one response to the fact that many federal
managers believe that desktop PC technologies are changing too rapidly to justify
ownership.


But the difficulty of dealing with PCs pales in comparison to an even bigger issue:
telecommunications services. Telecom, you could argue, has an even greater impact on
agencies' ability to carry out their missions.


The Internet is at the heart of the debate. Even though they don't own the Internet or
have to pay for it in the conventional sense, agencies are having trouble adjusting their
programs to take advantage of it. As a result, more than one federal telecommunications
program is in limbo.


Agencies have offices scattered around the country. Typically, the offices are
connected by private WANs. One common WAN function is providing on-ramps to the Internet.
Another is supporting remote users who have differing functional interests. Beneath the
overlay of connectivity lies a complex grid of high-priced leased lines.


On top of that, network managers face many unresolved functional problems. If the
managers thought they could solve the problems and save money in the process, I'll bet
they'd be interested.


Agencies have billions of dollars invested in legacy systems. Many systems are being
upgraded, with performance enhancements from new enterprisewide connectivity--at
additional cost.


Managers are increasingly savvy about the connectivity role of the Internet for e-mail
and document transfer, but an even better use is possible.


Virtual private networks, instead of traditional WANs made up of leased connections
plus direct-connect dial-up for remote access, can be supported by the public Internet.


As Internet service providers increase bandwidth between IP addresses and as new
compression and encryption protocols emerge, VPNs will become more attractive. They can
become secure mission-critical networks that reliably support communications among
regional offices, external partners, contractors and employees.


Businesses have realized cost savings up to 45 percent over traditional WANs by
migrating to VPNs. VPNs reduce the costs of building and maintaining internal dial-up
infrastructures or expensive point-to-point WAN links.


The benefits of VPNs to government, though, go beyond merely saving money. More
important is the flexible communications infrastructures that let agencies implement new
initiatives. VPNs can help distribute program delivery, thereby giving better service to
the citizen.


VPNs do have some drawbacks, though. Internet access is now the norm for most message
traffic in agencies of all sizes. Without doubt, agencies must protect their voluminous
data from unauthorized access, and understanding the security limitations of the Internet
is crucial when you consider such a link to your communications infrastructure. Luckily,
infrastructure vendors are starting to provide specific security systems.


Remember: As you add layers of network security, you add access delays.


Standards for TCP/IP connectivity do exist but are linked with vendors' products in
what is politely referred to as open proprietary computing. The bottom line is you'll face
yawning gaps in what should be seamless connectivity among certified open architectures.
That will make management of any VPN more difficult.


Also be prepared for support problems. In an intranet, the user organization typically
maintains total control of the environment. VPNs connect you to a broader environment
subject to viruses, hackers and spammers.


Agency webmasters, who generally contend only with e-mail, document transfer and Web
site development, work in an environment where one-day turnaround is normal. Such response
in client-server environments is unacceptable.


To plan virtual network strategies, you've got to retool your thinking.


One point to ponder is whether an agency should establish an intranet, plug its
existing network into the Internet or develop a system that combines the two approaches.


There's no answer that fits every agency's situation and specific performance
requirements. Unfortunately, judging from the General Accounting Office's audits of agency
responses to the Government Performance and Results Act, agencies' current levels of
strategic thinking may be inadequate.


Agencies must balance the demands of their programs with the technical needs of the
platforms their applications run on. Let's face it: You'll likely have to supplement
in-house expertise with network-literate, solution-oriented industry professionals who
know how to use emerging technology to solve business problems.


Cost and ease of implementation are critical factors in designing network solutions.


Anticipate future requirements of your VPN. Planning for unanticipated changes means
you won't be driven by them.


Here are four must-dos for running a VPN project:


A well-designed and firmly supported VPN is flexible, scalable and relatively
inexpensive. It gives the security and performance characteristics of a private network.
It can save money, and it can help an agency reinvent itself.


Robert Deller is president of Market Access International Inc., an information
technology market research, sales and support company in Chevy Chase, Md. His e-mail
address is bdeller@markess.com.


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