Technique | Virtual upgrade

NLRB uses utility computing to overhaul, centralize IT infrastructure

Look before you leap, but you will have to leap

On paper, it looks great: Give up the cost and hassle of owning your own servers, and turn over the responsibility to a service provider.

In reality, the move to utility computing requires a leap of faith.

'We're giving up ownership and management of that stuff, and it's scary,' said Richard Westfield, chief information officer of the National Labor Relations Board, which has signed a five-year contract with Savvis Federal Systems for virtualized information technology services.

Even if it works out, the agency must decide within five years whether to extend the relationship, move to another provider or bring its IT services back in-house. And that could be messy.

'When you're leasing all of that stuff from them, how do you get it back?' Westfield asked.

All of which means, 'it is really important to establish a good working relationship with the vendor,' he said. 'They're in business to make money.'

Not that there is anything wrong with that, but their interests and yours will not be identical, Westfield said, and you have to be clear about your expectations and their deliverables.

Under the right circumstances, utility computing can improve performance and cut management and maintenance costs more effectively than upgrading an existing infrastructure. And because these are contract expenses rather than capital expenditures, it may be easier to manage the contract than to make hardware and software acquisitions.

But virtualized or utility computing is neither free nor cheap, and in the end, it's all about seeing a return on investment, Westfield said.

'If you can't see a return on your've made the wrong decision,' he said.

CIO Richard Westfield

Rick Steele

When Richard Westfield became chief information officer at the National Labor Relations Board in December 2004, the agency's aging infrastructure posed a host of challenges.

NLRB had a decentralized system, with storage and servers scattered among its headquarters in Washington and 51 field offices across the country. There were no tools for monitoring the system, and the information technology staff already was stretched thin.

'We're not going to be getting any bigger,' Westfield said. 'In fact, 50 percent of my staff is going to be eligible to retire in the next five years.'

The agency needed to modernize its business systems, and updating the infrastructure clearly was the foundation. The CIO's office decided to start by consolidating all servers at NLRB headquarters. But this still would not provide around-the-clock support.

'The paradigm in government is still 5-by-8,' Westfield said. 'I'm budgeted for a five-days-a-week, eight-hours-a-day workforce.' But employees across three time zones increasingly are working remotely around the clock.

The solution was a five-year contract with Savvis Federal Systems that will let NLRB lease the needed IT resources and services.

'They have a substantial IT infrastructure' supporting a large online research library and electronic filing systems, said Savvis Vice President Don Teague. 'They needed help, and they were particularly intrigued by utility computing.'

Utility computing is a step beyond hosted or managed services, in which the service provider manages dedicated equipment owned either by the service provider or the customer. With utility computing, IT services are provisioned from a pool of resources rather than a dedicated infrastructure.

Westfield said utility computing offered a cost-effective way to get the full-time management he needed.

'We don't have a big outlay of money,' he said. Capital expenses are replaced by annual recurring costs that are easy to budget for.

The idea of utility, or virtual, computing is not new. It dates to the 1980s and virtual private networks, which provide private links via public networks. The concept of sharing IT resources has not caught on quickly in government, but several smaller agencies ' where manpower and resources are likely to be stretched thinnest ' are beginning to adopt it.

The Federal Election Commission is using Savvis to consolidate its File Transfer Protocol and mail routing on a virtualized IT delivery platform. The Census Bureau is creating its own Utility Computing Environment, in which the Census IT department is providing a pool of resources for other bureau business units.
NLRB is a small agency with only about 1,900 employees. But they are spread across the country in 34 regions, and they rely heavily on IT.

NLRB selected Savvis through the company's General Services Administration schedule contract. Once the agency had decided on a managed-services approach, it drew up a statement of work.

'It was probably one of the most difficult statements of work we ever wrote,' Westfield said.

The number of variables involved made the process something like selecting from a Chinese menu.

Teague said implementation is different at every federal agency: Every agency has a unique mission, so every contract is heavily customized.

He said Savvis markets itself to the high-end commercial market, and that the government's security and performance requirements match well in general with that sector's needs.

Savvis will provide blade servers and host some NLRB servers at its secure data center in Sterling, Va. Eventually, it will serve offices in the western half of the country from the Savvis center in Anaheim, Calif. The second center also will provide failover capacity for continuity of operations and disaster recovery.

NLRB now has its public Web server, portal server and Documentum eRoom collaborative workspace servers hosted at Savvis. The next phase, which will depend on the fiscal 2008 budget, will be consolidation of disk storage and file servers from regional offices at facilities on the East and West coasts. The agency estimated the cost for new hardware, software licenses and deployment to replace these servers at $1 million. With utility computing, this will become just another contract item without upfront costs.

Even if there are no net savings in utility computing, improvements in efficiency should make the move worthwhile. Performance, troubleshooting and maintenance on Savvis-hosted servers have already improved. And Westfield expects any new expenses to be more than offset by efficiencies that will reduce the need for IT workers.

'I'm probably going to need 25 percent fewer government employees in the next three to five years,' he said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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