VIEW FROM THE FRONT
She thrives on ATF's comm upgrade
Project manager Perkins coordinates intricate migration to frame relay
By Richard W. Walker
Kathleen Perkins can't get enough of computers.
'I've always loved computers. Even before I got into computers, I was a human computer, I guess you would call it,' she said, referring to the time in the late 1970s when she built data cards for an Army supply division in Fulda, Germany, where her husband was stationed.
Perkins has come a long way since then. She's now a computer specialist in the Network Management Branch of the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. ATF recently honored her for her leadership in a project to upgrade the bureau's frame relay WAN.
On a recent day at ATF's headquarters, Perkins sat in the room where the agency's network is monitored and talked about the challenges and triumphs of being part of the network management team that oversees ATF's communications infrastructure.Fundamental changes
'We had to make sure that there was minimal downtime, if any, during the upgrade. Actually, we didn't have any downtime.'
On the wall was a large chart of ATF's network showing the 220 division and field offices around the country. The offices are connected via frame relay services from AT&T Corp. under the Treasury Communications System's FTS 2000 contract.
The deployment of ATF's frame relay WAN in late 1996 and 1997 marked the beginning of a new era for the bureau's communications technology, Perkins said.
Before that, ATF's information technology environment was a jumble of incompatible systems and disparate hardware and platforms.
'The systems were so diverse and disconnected,' Perkins said. 'Even if you wanted to discuss the possibility of sharing data, it was just not there.'
Also in 1997, the bureau was moving toward outsourcing its desktop PC and LAN management to solve its IT woes. That October, ATF awarded a seat management contract to Unisys Corp., which finished outfitting the entire enterprise early in 1998.
'Seat management came in to make improvements on the existing systems and get everyone on the same platform,' Perkins said. 'So the network had to be a good infrastructure, stable and properly sized to carry the load.'
The migration to frame relay, from a system using X.25 technology, began 'with trickles to see how this would go,' she said.
In the initial rollout, Perkins and other network managers went out to division and field offices to supervise the installation of frame relay equipment, including 2501 and 4000 series routers from Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif., and SecureFrame units from Cylink Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif.
'Once we had the frame relay infrastructure installed, we knew we needed to leave room for growth,' she said.
At first, project managers stayed with a modest committed information rate of 42 Mbps to save on costs until the bandwidth requirements of field offices could be established.
'In the initial install, it was a conservative rate,' Perkins said. 'Then we monitored it for a time to see exactly where we wanted to go from there. That was what resulted in the upgrade.'
The upgrade, begun in October 1998 and completed in April last year, was easier to implement because managers had predetermined data rates'256 Mbps for about 25 division offices and 128 Mbps for nearly 200 field offices'that would be standardized throughout the bureau, she said.
As project manager, Perkins was responsible for keeping track of the upgrade schedule from week to week.
'The project involved a tremendous amount of coordinating,' Perkins said. 'We had to make sure that there was minimal downtime, if any, during the upgrade. Actually, we didn't have any downtime, period. The majority of the sites went just fine.'
Being heavily involved in getting ATF's communications infrastructure up to speed has been a joy for Perkins.
'It's been very fast-paced and exciting,' she said. 'To me, very fun. I've totally enjoyed helping with the effort, but it hasn't been by myself by any means. I'm only a tiny part of all the effort and hard work.'
Perkins joined ATF in 1990, working first in the Mainframe Operations Branch and then moving to the Telecommunications Branch about 1994. She migrated to the Network Management Branch, which currently has a staff of about 20, several years later.
Perkins' early career in computer technology progressed in fits and starts as she followed her husband, an Army careerist, from base to base in Europe and the United States.
After her period of punching data cards in Germany, Perkins moved back to the United States in 1979 when her husband was posted to Fort Sill, Okla.
At Fort Sill, she continued to work for the Army and began to find her way into the computer world.
'I started getting into the IT field with database work,' she said.
After about five years at Fort Sill, her husband was posted back to Germany, where Perkins continued her database work and started getting into systems administration.
At the Army base in Worms, Germany, Perkins worked in the information center. It was a time when the 286 minicomputer was 'the most fantastic creation on earth' and networks were rudimentary affairs, she said.Staying ahead
'Most of the PCs we worked on were networked with the mainframe for file transfers or were standalone,' she said. 'No matter what was out there, which was a hodgepodge of everything you could imagine, we had to support it. You never knew what sort of equipment you were going to have to answer a question on.'
In 1987, her husband was transferred to Fort Carson, Colo., where Perkins started working in IT for the Air Force. At Falcon Air Force Base, she was introduced to LANs.
Three years later, Perkins went with her husband to Washington, where he had taken a job with the Architect of the Capitol. She was soon on board at ATF.
These days, Perkins is managing another network upgrade, though it's not as large as the first upgrade.
'It's bureauwide but doesn't include every office,' she said. 'It's fine-tuning, getting ready for new projects.'
Part of the impetus for the latest upgrade is to prepare the bureau's WAN for new, bandwidth-heavy applications.
'The strategy is to stay ahead and have the foresight of knowing what's coming down the road,' she said. 'What I'm really excited about seeing now is the convergence of voice, data and video. It's going to be so exciting for someone in the field to get training, to get briefings.
'I know we're a ways from that because it would be a big financial outlay to provide it to every desktop. But the limited amount we can do now, I think we'll be able to handle.'
Bureau IT officials also are looking at building a virtual private network and wireless technology for remote users.
'Our biggest issue is helping the WAN to get to the users, wherever they may be,' Perkins said.