Assess your LAN before choosing the best plan

'At the time, you couldn't find good IT people that I could afford to pay. And if we did, they wouldn't stay,' said Shirley Hughes, CFO of Falls Church, Va.

A few years ago, the state of IT in the city of Falls Church, Va., was in what chief financial officer Shirley Hughes calls the dark ages.

The city was running an IBM AS/400 Token-Ring network primarily made up of dumb terminals and a handful of PCs. Processes were slow and the technology was, to say the least, behind the times.

A little more than two years and $2 million later, Falls Church has a Microsoft Windows NT network with a virtual private network linking all of its buildings, including schools. Internal processes have gained speed, employees have gained access to systems, and the city's Web site has gone from static to interactive, with a variety of services online and a few more in the works.

It's like 'going from an abacus to one of today's fancy calculators,' Hughes said, offering an analogy.

Falls Church made the change without buying a single piece of equipment. The city hired Reliable Integration Services Inc. of Dunn Loring, Va., to design the network, install it with the help of subcontractors and monitor its operation. It leases its roughly 140 PCs through ePlus Inc. of Herndon, Va. Reliable Integration manages the network remotely.

A combination of factors contributed to the decision to outsource the job, Hughes said, including a lack of experienced IT workers'this was during the height of the dot-com boom'and the question of whether managing the network was a core government service.

'At the time, you couldn't find good IT people that I could afford to pay. And if we did, they wouldn't stay,' she said. With the help of a consultant the city asked, 'Is this core?' and came up with the answer, 'No, it's not.'

The move toward managed services, even for something like network administration, is a developing trend in government, particularly at the local level, said Valerie Perlowitz, Reliable Integration's president and chief executive officer. But, she said, the trend could also filter up toward the federal level.

Federal and state governments tend to do more of what she called forklift contracting'broad, all-encompassing contracts such as seat management. 'Local governments are more likely to do what we call seat without the seat''that is, contracting for specific services.

Perlowitz said outsourcing services, in which the contractor does not own the equipment, can give agencies at any level of government more flexibility and leverage.

Clause that refreshes

For one thing, she said, a seatlike contract typically is tied to an automatic tech refresh about every two years. But some agencies'like the corporate customers her company has'might find they don't need new equipment so often, particularly if their employees are working in office suite and word processing programs.

'Most people don't use a quarter of the power of their PCs,' she said, suggesting that four or five years could be a more practical refresh period for some organizations.

Flat line

Hughes said that contracting for services and leasing equipment makes for a more consistent budget line from year to year, rather than having large spikes in years of equipment buys.

Contracting for services also can give an agency more leverage, Perlowitz said. If a contractor doesn't own the equipment, it can be easier to fire them if they are not performing. The more comprehensive the outsourcing contract, the harder it is to make changes.

'The good analogy is the telephone,' she said: In the past, people bought their phones and services from one phone company, but now they can mix and match from any number of sources. 'We believe that the computer industry is going the same way,' she said.

To date, federal agencies haven't outsourced a lot of LAN management, although there is a growing number of examples, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

In a GCN Reader Survey conducted this month, 17 percent of respondents said they outsourced management of their networks, up from 9 percent two years ago.

A key to remote management, Hughes said, is having a contractor located nearby. Although Perlowitz said that almost every network problem can be handled remotely, on-site calls still happen.

'They're my first line,' Hughes said, 'and they've operated the way an in-house IT shop would work.'

Even though security is a concern in remote management, Perlowitz said, the use of VPNs and firewalls provides protection.

'We can manage a network,' she said, 'but not see the data.'

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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