White House calls for global VPN

White House calls for global VPN

By Tony Lee Orr

GCN Staff

To save money and streamline embassy management, the State Department is looking to the Internet to create a backbone network for the 30 federal agencies that maintain offices overseas.

Based on the recommendations of a presidential panel, State will lead a multiagency initiative to create a common IT architecture for federal offices abroad.

President Clinton recently ordered all agencies that work around the globe to heed the recommendations of the Overseas Presence Advisory Panel and move toward a more cohesive use of technology.

At the president's direction, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright ordered the formation of a group of chief information officers and foreign affairs specialists from the nine largest agencies with offices abroad to work on the global network project.

CIOs from the CIA, Peace Corps and departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Justice, State, Transportation and Treasury are participating in the OPAP Interagency Technology Subcommittee meetings.

The panel recommended that agencies share information and technology resources, State chief information officer Fernando Burbano said. Currently, the agencies, many of which work inside embassy compounds, maintain their own systems.

Bringing those systems up to date would help overseas representatives gather and disseminate information, improve staff productivity and save money, the White House panel concluded.

'A lot of these agencies have stovepipes,' Burbano said. 'They can't talk to each other, or won't. They probably could, but they just cut it off.'

The panel's report, A New Design for Our Overseas Presence, urged the president to direct all overseas agencies to provide staff with Internet access, e-mail, a secure unclassified Web site and shared applications that would permit unclassified communications among all agencies around the globe. It also suggested that the government establish a common intranet for these organizations.

Common needs

Agencies also should design a common platform for secure classified information, to be implemented over the next two years, the report said.

The panel estimated the government would need to spend upwards of $300 million on Internet technology and other off-the-shelf components to create a common unclassified network for all overseas agencies. The cost for a classified system would run another $130 million, the panel said.

Burbano said the hurdles are managerial, not technological. Virtual private network links and 'knowledge management software would give us a common platform,' he said. Agencies would need to do minimal tweaking for their unique needs, he added.

Joe Chaddic, State's senior director for foreign affairs systems integration, said roughly 80 percent of the agencies use IP-based systems that could easily work with knowledge management software.

He said he expects to have an implementation plan ready by June. An initial link would cost between $20 million and $30 million and could be completed within 18 months. Most of the information handled in embassies is neither proprietary nor classified, so access-control problems could be solved with commercial security software, the panel said in its report.

'Employees can handle this in a Web environment using the best practices of industry,' the report said. 'Embassy-related Web sites hosted at a central location under the secure control of U.S. government staff could provide a range of tools.'

In addition to e-mail services, the intranet site could offer browser access to standard and customized database applications, file sharing, scheduling, discussion groups and chat rooms. 'The government should also place administrative systems on the Web site so that employees can do routine administrative chores online, from obtaining a travel voucher to submitting a work order,' the panel said.

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