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Facing the Challenges

Common sense and creativity are key in working with the increasing demands placed on computer networks and those who manage them.

Everyone knows that networking is an explosive growth area. The importance, size, speed and complexity of networks continue to expand in both the public and private sectors as new applications and new versions of old applications require more network capacity. For information managers trying to keep up with the demand for network services, this growth is changing the landscape in several major ways:

1) There are no more limits on what kinds of traffic can flow on the network. Once upon a time, networks carried relatively simple content -- text-based mail, log-in sessions to central mainframes or reports from the data processing center. Those days are gone. Today, networks carry anything and everything that can be digitized, and the list of things being digitized is growing. This new content requires more bandwidth, which opens the door to new applications that, in turn, require even more bandwidth.

2) Demand for network services is growing along two seemingly opposite vectors: "downward" to the department, group and team and "upward" to the enterprise -- and beyond. In other words, network managers are being asked to provide the customized service of group size LANs with the advantages of global, seamless access.

3) There is no more "business as usual." The new network-centric world requires new skills, new levels of cooperation with other departments, new levels of accountability and new ways of doing business. Outsourcing, once a foreign concept when it came to networking, is now emerging as an option for managers seeking to stay on top of the demand for service and innovation.

Variations on these themes are evident in recent network success stories.

Digitizing the Courts
When building its new courthouse, Orange County was able to construct a network infrastructure from the ground up, intended from the beginning to meet diverse needs.

"We started construction about a year ago on the new county courthouse," said Frank Hughes, network architect for the Orange County Division of Information Technologies. "We used to have many different courthouses for many things -- traffic, criminal, civil. It was a big mess. We integrated all the judicial entities into one square block, and my job was to integrate [their networks]."

Centralizing the courts and district attorneys' offices into one building complex was intended to make life easier for the citizen, but it posed a challenge to network designers. Hughes wanted flexibility, but he also needed to separate the network traffic for each political entity. The last thing he wanted to do was install and maintain multiple physical networks that would lock him into specific configurations and make it difficult to accommodate office and personnel changes.

The problem was solved by building one physical infrastructure and using virtual local area networks to compartmentalize the data streams. This provided the perfect combination of easy physical management with network flexibility. Now, the network carries a combination of office integration and case management applications, depending on the political entity involved, as well as audio.

"During the courtroom proceedings, the audio is taped and sent down to a cluster of NT servers that digitize the audio and spool it onto disk," said Hughes. "When the judges go back to their chambers and want to review testimony, they have a Windows 95 application that looks much like a CD player, and they can listen to the transcripts, which saves them having to read through a bunch of written transcripts. The audio is also available to the court reporters."

In days past, the audio requirements would have ended up as a separate system. In the new world of networking, everything travels on the same backbone.

Digitizing A State
Whether the task involves unifying diverse courts or an entire state, many of the same principles apply. Oklahoma began to consider building a unified statewide network about 10 years ago. At the time, the state universities' regents developed a statewide microwave network for sharing professors. Some high schools were beginning to build their own networks, but each school was implementing their own kind of interactive TV technology. The regents wanted to ensure interoperability between schools and saw a unified network as a way to help higher education reach out to businesses.

"We had a number of pockets of technology that had popped up," said Mike Erhart, chief technology officer for the statewide network, OneNet. "A number of schools had fiber optics for sharing teachers, and we had a lot of WANs for state agencies; in some places there were microwave towers on both sides of the highways for different networks. We felt there was a need to have some overarching system that could be put into place to supply transport for these agencies. We also thought this would bring a cost savings and greater interoperability."

The first few years were spent in getting legislative approval for the network and making the necessary statute changes. It's only been in the last couple of years that the backbone has been built and users moved onto it. The immediate problem of how to fund a backbone the length of the state was solved by trading the right-of-way along the state turnpike. IXC was in the process of building a transcontinental fiber line and, in exchange for the right-of-way, gave 12 fibers to the state at no cost. For access to and from the backbones, the telephone companies were enlisted to help. Some rural areas were counting on new network services to ensure their continued survival. Since the telephone companies had a desire to keep and expand their customer base, it fit their long-term financial interests to help make the network a success. Because of this, the state was able to work out a deal to get DS3 lines1 at a low monthly cost.

With the network infrastructure in place, the state began migrating agencies and applications to it. That migration has proceeded at a good clip; in late 1997, they moved their 1000th client onto OneNet. Agencies that moved saw an immediate benefit.

"We found that our Dept. of Human Services was on a public frame relay network, and to move them over to the state network means saving a quarter of a million dollars per year in real costs and has given them higher bandwidth," said Erhart.

OneNet also benefits the correction system. Recently, the pardon and parole board met using video over the network, which avoids the cost and security risk of transporting inmates to physically meet with the board. Some of the state hospitals also provide telemedicine services to the correctional system, including teleradiology, telecardiology and even telestethoscopes.

Telemedicine services are not just available to the correctional system. Currently, 45 hospitals are using teleradiology over OneNet, and Erhart even knows of some cardiac patients located in a small community in the southwest corner of the state who are monitored through OneNet. This allows patients to remain at home while improving the quality of care.

OneNet has also brought innovation to the school system. Currently, 100 high schools are sharing teachers by using video over the network. Every student in the virtual classrooms can interact with the teacher because the microphones are live all the time. So far student response seems good.

"Grades are somewhat higher for the distancelearning classes," said Erhart. "We think some of it is that kids have grown up on TV, so maybe it makes things a bit more interesting. Admittedly, you do tend to put your best and brightest students into these kinds of experimental programs, but we will continue to watch it as the program grows."

Distance learning and telemedicine were not just flashy things to do. For some communities, it has been a matter of survival. For example, as the state raised the requirements for math and science, many rural towns faced a potential crisis. Recruiting good science or math teachers to small communities can be a difficult task. Some schools would not have been able to keep up without access to distance learning and may have faced closings. For small towns, such a loss could be very damaging.

Oklahoma Outsourcing
From the beginning, officials knew Oklahoma didn't have the resources to do a project of this scale, so a good portion of the network operation has been outsourced. The phone companies were brought in to help because they already did a good job of billing customers, and they had existing service desk, marketing and field operations staff. The state tapped the phone company expertise in these areas without losing overall control of the network.

"We did keep control of key things, such as assigning IP addresses and managing the routers," said Erhart. "These were things we knew well, and when we looked at how to do the split, we kept that core part of the network operation within the state."

Erhart sees single state networks as a trend and specifically cited Missouri's efforts -- which have already connected more than 600 schools -- as an example of similar work in Oklahoma's region.

Outsourcing Option
For years, the idea of network outsourcing has practically been a verboten subject. That has changed with the commoditization of network products and services and the need to flexibly respond to new configurations and demands. For network staff, this change also requires a new flexibility.

Ken McGee, vice president of Gartner Group Inc., points to a gap in skill set or personnel resources as a key factor in driving network outsourcing. When managers look at their upcoming projects and the existing people to deliver those projects, they may find that the portfolio of available skills is out of alignment with project requirements. Managers then face a decision to either hire more people or change their methodology for delivering network services. Increasingly, they are opting to change or add to their existing methodology. Such changes are even coming to the oldest networks, including the voice networks created 30 or more years ago.

"The vendors in voice call processing are creating products to replace the existing staff," commented McGee. "These kinds of relationships (between vendors and in-house staff) have existed for a long time, but for the first time, instead of wanting to work with them, vendors want to replace them. The carriers or the equipment providers or the software providers have worked for so many years in unison, but now they need to differentiate themselves from the competitors, so we have IBM and AT&T knocking on the CEO's door. There is no reason to believe that the public sector area will escape this."

McGee's conversations with IT executives, including the most senior executives in state and local government, have confirmed this trend, and he's finding an increasingly receptive ear to the idea of network outsourcing. Five characteristics of a networking operation seem to control, or at least indicate, the likely need for outsourcing:

1) An organizational structure that is based around planning, designing and operations as opposed to a structure organized by technology. For example, this would discourage groupings such as "the voice group."

2) The existence of management processes. McGee noted that, in most cases, if you give the same project to 17 different network professionals, they will tackle it 34 different ways. He's found that unless the manner in which the work is done is standardized, the networking group will have no hope of meeting future demands. McGee counsels network staff to separate planning, designing and implementation from operations, otherwise the planning activities will constantly be interrupted by people needing help. "They've got to make the operations world stop doing changes and fixing networks, and they must stop the interruptions to the designers and planners," McGee said.

3) The existence of systems to competitively procure network services. McGee noted that state and local governments excel in this area as compared to the private sector.

4) Competitive procurement of network equipment and software.

5) Finally, network groups must have a method for managing network assets and for controlling network expenses. Network groups need to know exactly what they have in-house, who is using the resources, and they must be able to charge back usage to the appropriate group.

For network staff, these five characteristics may provide guidance for evaluating their own organizations; for managers, these characteristics may help identify areas in need of improvement or that may benefit from outsourcing.

No one doubts the increasing importance of networking to state and local governments. As technology steps up to the plate to help agencies that are being pushed to service constituents more effectively with fewer resources, the demand for network services will continue to grow. It is important for network professionals to recognize the new world of networking growing up around them. Seizing the opportunities inherent in that world opens the door to new and exciting uses for the network while helping their department, city or state to better serve the citizen.

1 DS3 (Digital Signal) A classification of digital circuits. A DS3 line carries up to 672 voice channel or 44.736 Mbps of data. (From the Computer Desktop Encyclopedia.)

February Table of Contents

David Aden is a writer from Washington, D.C.