Sometime this summer, New York state expects to unveil a huge computer network designed to reinvent the way state and local government agencies interact.
Based on Internet technology and standards, but configured as a private intranet, the project aims to open unprecedented electronic communication among organizations that range from large state departments to small-town clerks. In all, the state's Office for Technology (OFT) expects to link together some 80 state agencies and 900 towns, cities and counties.
OFT Director Camaron Thomas predicts the new network -- known as NYT and pronounced "net" -- will have wide-ranging impact on participating organizations.
"We don't have anything right now connecting local governments to the state agencies that they deal with on an ongoing basis, even for something as simple as e-mail," said Thomas. "There's a wealth of knowledge out there, but it's disbursed in such a way that [agencies] don't have access to one another. I don't know how we've existed this long without being able to talk."
Sharon Dawes, director of the State University of New York (SUNY) Center for Technology in Government, agreed. "The basic ability to communicate readily from one desktop to another within state and local government will be a wonderful boost for us," she said.
Besides providing essential services like e-mail and Internet access, NYT will become a conduit for specialized agency applications, allowing it to replace a number of existing networks, according to OFT. With its ability to deliver data, voice and video, the state also foresees NYT providing advanced applications, such as distance learning, telemedicine and online voice services.
A 20-member governance council, comprised of state and local agencies involved in NYT, meets quarterly to decide broad policy and organizational issues shaping the network. A smaller management committee meets biweekly to iron out the details.
"The reason that a coordinated network hasn't been successful is because one agency or entity assumed charge of it, and the others felt that they were on the receiving end. This time around, everyone who is affected is involved," said Thomas.
That involvement is crucial to the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services, which will use NYT to replace its CRIMNET network. CRIMNET distributes criminal history information to hundreds of local law enforcement agencies and judges throughout the state.
"We sit on the management committee and governance council, so we will have input into this process to make sure that our needs are satisfied," said Leo Carroll, director of the agency's Office of Systems.
Thomas noted that agency participation in NYT is completely voluntary; therefore, the project's success rides on meeting user needs. "What we're doing is making sure it's the very best thing out there, so that agencies want to participate," she said. "And, the fact that they're involved in the building of it seems to be bringing them to the table."
The heart of NYT is a high-speed, fiber-optic cable stretching from Buffalo to New York City. The state contracted with Metropolitan Fiber Systems Network Technologies to lay eight fiber-optic strands along the state's thruway. The company also will install Fujitsu Synchronous Optical Network (SONET) electronics.
NYT Project Manager Will Pelgrin expects cabling to be finished by February, yielding a backbone that operates at OC-48 speeds and provides so much bandwidth that the state will initially use just half of the fiber-optic strands.
The next step will be choosing a vendor to handle network integration. According to an RFP issued by OFT, the vendor will perform preliminary engineering design analysis, supply and install network equipment, and integrate multiple types of equipment and services.
Among other things, the RFP specifies ATM switching equipment at all 14 network access points located throughout the state. The preferred network protocol will be TCP/IP. However, the RFP says NYT must also provide multiprotocol capabilities, allowing agencies to migrate toward Internet technologies at their own pace.
What's more, the winning vendor will handle NYT's ongoing monitoring, management and maintenance. "You want to outsource what you don't do great," explained Thomas. "We're not going to have a state agency that's running the NYT, per se." OFT currently is reviewing vendor responses to the RFP and hopes to make a selection by this month.
The choice will be made "on a best-value basis which optimizes quality, cost -- including lifecycle cost -- and efficiency," according to the RFP. The document adds that OFT intends to award a single NYT contract, but it reserves the right to contract with multiple vendors.
NYT's intranet structure combines the flexibility and user-friendliness of the Internet with the security of a private network, said Dawes.
She noted that the TCP/IP network provides clear standards for those who build and manage network applications, in essence becoming the glue that binds together disparate computer platforms and operating systems. Internet technology also provides standards of a different sort for end users, who will access network applications and services through a common Web browser. "It really enhances the ability of people to get up to speed quickly," said Dawes.
Settling on the TCP/IP protocol was easy for NYT participants, said Thomas, reflecting the IT community's broad acceptance of the Internet
"The first action the governance council took was to say that [TCP/IP] is our protocol," she said. "I've been involved off and on in IT for 16 years, and at no point could we ever agree on a standard protocol. This was the first time."
While other states have also undertaken large networking initiatives, New York's commitment to involving local government sets the NYT project apart, Dawes said. Driving that commitment is the fact that many programs administered by the state are actually operated by local agencies.
"The whole service delivery channel begins at the local level; that's where the customer interfaces. So it's really critical for local governments to be fully involved if those programs are going to operate well," she said.
Dawes credits Internet- and
intranet-style communications with lowering the technology barriers to government information sharing. But, she added, there are plenty of other challenges.
"These remain very difficult projects because of all the other things that don't have anything to do with technology," she said. "Organizations collect, use and define information differently. They're funded from different sources or on different timelines.
"All of the things that separate one organization from another don't go away because the technology problems have been lessened," noted Dawes.
However, Thomas said the NYT governance council has been meeting for about a year to manage those types of concerns. "The committee handles anything from organizational issues to setting protocols and developing rules governing how NYT is used. It'll also be dealing with bandwidth allocations and finances," she said. "I don't think the NYT would have happened without it."
A key issue for the committee will be developing a billing mechanism to support the project. Thomas anticipates that agencies will be charged based on their network use, but the details are still being hammered out.
"We've guaranteed everybody that they'll be paying no more than they're paying now, but they'll have more services for that money," she said. "Over time, that cost should go down."
While NYT's intranet design promises to provide agencies with much greater networking flexibility -- which is particularly important in an era of welfare reform and other changes that demand new data connections -- those capabilities also raise new security concerns. "It's not just a dedicated line between point A and point B anymore," said Carroll.
He said the division will use its position on the NYT governance council and management committee to ensure that sensitive information remains protected.
Pelgrin said NYT intends to handle security issues through a separate contract with Rome Laboratory. The New York-based facility is one of four U.S. Air Force "super laboratories."
"We do not want the NYT integrator to provide the security component. We want an independent body to do that for us," Pelgrin said. "[Rome] provides security for the U.S. Defense Department. They don't produce products ... so we're assured of getting the best of the best."
Reliability also ranks high on the Division of Criminal Justice's list of demands, according to Carroll. "One of the things that we're always very conscious of in criminal justice is that most of our organizations run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year," he said. "We can't be down."
Despite the challenging requirements, Carroll said he's confident NYT will accommodate the division's needs and provide a means for the agency to deliver information more quickly and efficiently.
"It'll change the way we work, really," he said.
OFT prepared information for the local governments that describes the new network and the requirements for connecting, which Pegrin expected OFT to distribute in January. He noted that the NYT integrator will provide end-to-end connection service to agencies that lack the resources or expertise to do it themselves.
"Some state agencies will blow your doors off in terms of technological capacity. Then we've also got these little-town clerks that might need more attention," said Thomas. "We have to span the gap with a variety of services."
In fact, given the diversity of state and local agencies involved in NYT, Thomas said the best indication of the project's success may simply be that "everybody's still at the table."
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