Government network managers plan ahead to avoid construction site disasters
By Richard W. Walker
In the familiar concept of computer technology as an information highway, networks are where the rubber meets the road.
As with highways, the communications infrastructure has to be constantly upgraded and expanded to handle increasing amounts of traffic.
And for federal networks, what's coming down the pike is a heavy load of bandwidth-busting traffic.
Infrastructure planning is being driven largely by the capacity and speed requirements of applications broadly related to electronic government and electronic commerce.
Federal network managers, keeping their eyes fixed on points ahead on the road, can see it coming.
More Internet business, the convergence of voice, video and data, virtual private networks, remote access and wireless applications.
For network managers, it isn't just a matter of keeping up with the demand for bigger and faster pipes, it's a matter of staying way ahead of it.
'It's knowing what type of data we're going to be passing and anticipating what the users want next,' said Kathleen Perkins, a computer specialist in the network management branch of the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
ATF has been upgrading its local WAN connections in anticipation of looming new demands, such as convergence, remote access to the network and virtual private networking.
There is no doubt among information technology managers that convergence is one of the primary factors in infrastructure plans.
'It's going to hit like a tidal wave,' said Bob Deutsch, systems engineering director of federal operations for Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif. 'It's driving network strategies.'
Take the Postal Service, for example. There, network managers are looking over the horizon to the impact of convergence on strategies for their WAN, which uses frame-relay technology. They want to be able to provide videoconferencing and video broadcasting to their users.
'The combination of video and voice and the additional volume will likely drive us to look at another technology but probably not in the next two years,' said Larry Wills, manager of telecommunications services for the Postal Service in Raleigh, N.C.
'We've got to put quality of service in the routers to allow voice and video to get priority when it's necessary, but we really don't have the bandwidth necessary to support those requirements today. It will likely require a forklift upgrade when we do that,' he said.
The upgrade will likely mean migrating to asynchronous transfer mode technology, Wills said.
'You can get the bandwidth with frame relay, but right now you don't get the same quality of service guarantees that you get with ATM,' Wills said.
He added that when the time comes for a major upgrade, 'we'll put a solicitation on the street and let the experts tell us what would be the best way to do it. We would define the requirements, and then we'll evaluate what they tell us.'
The Postal Service's WAN backbone is run by MCI WorldCom Inc. and connects more than 9,000 sites around the United States.Special delivery
Wills said the Postal Service also is looking at building a VPN to provide remote access to mobile workers carrying notebook PCs, home access for teleworkers and access to business partners who don't need a dedicated connection.
The Postal Service also is modifying its infrastructure to accommodate the use of handheld PCs.
The agency has deployed about 50 handheld devices running Palm OS from Palm Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., to airplane ramp inspectors who track vendor performance in delivering international mail. Each inspector enters data into the device and at the end of the day pops it into an Ethernet cradle, which is connected to the WAN, and upload the information to a Microsoft SQL Server in Washington.
Postal Service officials eventually may take the system wireless and use the architecture for other applications as well, said Clayton Bonnell, manager for international operations systems and support in Washington.
For the most part, because federal agencies often outsource their WAN operations, the primary focus for feds is increasing services at the WAN edge.
'That's basically a question of how to get from a small, remote site to the core,' Cisco's Deutsch said.
Upgrading the campus infrastructure also figures in the overall strategy to meet speed and capacity demands, with more agencies moving their LANs to Gigabit Ethernet technology, Deutsch added.
At NASA, chief information officer Lee Holcomb is focusing on improving LANs.
'Our long-haul network is all commercially provided,' he said. 'The one area I'm putting a priority on is end-to-end, local area networking, up to the [input/output] ports on workstations. That's an area where a lot more work is to be done.'Work lies ahead
For federal network managers, the challenges ahead are manifold.
'The biggest single challenge is the pace of change,' Deutsch said. 'We're going through a paradigm shift, from the standpoint of doing business on the Internet and with convergence. The paradigm shift creates complexities that put stress on organizations. Along with that, the whole planning cycle is changing so quickly. You've got to figure out how to react much more quickly.'
Planning well in advance is critical, especially for LAN managers.
They must figure out how to get all of those imminent, bandwidth-devouring requirements, such as video, from the telecommunications closet in the basement to the user's desk upstairs.
'To keep the carpenters' boots off the desks 10 years from now, you have to make some decisions about what to put into place today,' said John Eidsness, senior manager for product development at Bell Atlantic Federal of Washington.
'Today, we're using static pictures. Ten years from today, those pictures are going to be moving. Users are going to expect high quality,' he said.
Video is going to require 'something like Gigabit Ethernet,' he added. 'We expect that twisted-pair wiring, in the right configurations, will handle Gigabit Ethernet requirements. So it's a matter of changing equipment in the process. Let's go right to the closet and make the changes there.'
The bottom line for agencies,0 Deutsch said, is 'to build the network to be adaptable for change, for speed and capacity as well as for resiliency and scalability. You need to be able to change it, adapt it and mold it. You don't have time to tear it out.'
One thing's for sure: You don't want your IT infrastructure looking like one of those massive roadway construction sites, ill-planned, never-ending and hopelessly behind.