NASA shows the way with e-mail consolidation

Friday - 9/10/2010, 7:22am EDT

WFED's Jason Miller with John Sprague, a user services project executive at NASA's Outsourcing Desktop Initiative office

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

NASA is awaiting ideas for phase 3 of its e-mail consolidation effort as part of the bids under its Agency Consolidated End User Services contract.

ACES is part of the space agency's IT Infrastructure Integration Program (I3P) and awards are expected this fall. NASA expects to issue the final I3P request for proposals for its National Enterprise Data Center this fall.

"A lot of what we are doing is looking internally by center so we can get a good perspective on how the centers will have to change which rolls up to the agency perspective," said Deborah Diaz, NASA deputy chief information officer about the NEDC RFP.

As for the ACES, John Sprague, a user services project executive at NASA's Outsourcing Desktop Initiative office, said vendors bidding on the contract could offer to take the agency's e-mail to the cloud.

"We are looking forward to that," he said after a panel discussion at the recent NASA IT Summit in National Harbor, Md. "Today, we support more than 60,000 users and have just added more servers and clusters to keep up with the demand."

While NASA is moving to phase 3 of its e-mail consolidation having already reduced to one called the NASA Operating Messaging Directory Services (NOMAD) in 2008, many agencies are caught in the wave of technology consolidation that is taking the government by storm.

The General Services Administration, the Army and Homeland Security are among the departments reducing and simplifying the number of e-mail systems they use. And those agencies could use NASA's experience as a model of success.

Sprague said NASA is enjoying several benefits in less than two years, and was well suited for the mobile revolution that is turning up the pressure on agency e-mail servers.

"We saw a lot of benefits from it in the areas of mobility, scalability; we really worked hard to make sure we weren't going to stop with the current levels of customers so as they grow we can grow," he said. "Security, of course, going from many, many platforms to one makes it easier."

The mobility and scalability turned out to be two of the most important benefits because NASA is one of the leaders across government in the use of smartphones and tablet computers, whether Apple iPhone or iPad or Google Droid.

"The entire Microsoft Exchange infrastructure on the back end can only be accessed by a client-server set-up," Sprague said. "We've done a lot of work to make sure any little bugs are worked out because NASA has a very mobile workforce."

NASA estimates that about 2,000 employees have iPhones, while there are more than 14,000 mobile devices overall across the agency.

Sprague said uniformity of software also led to a culture change, which tends be one of the most difficult things with any consolidation.

NASA spent a lot of time trying to address the change as many centers relied on e-mail differently. He said NASA went to each center to help them understand the changes, but also relied on internal experts.

"Bring those subject matter experts and have them sit down to write the requirements to make sure you capture it all," Sprague said. "Who else knows it better than those folks?"

Sprague also added that user testing is important so there are no problems during implementation, and users become advocates within their own centers to help with the culture change.

Sprague said another key success factor is senior official buy-in. He said it is one thing to do a business case and gain approval in the beginning, but the involvement of senior officials will go a long way to change the culture and ultimately be successful. He said the executive is the champion to make sure the project goes through.

"Giving a weekly brief, or sometimes a daily brief depending on the criticality of the project is the best way," he said. "You don't want have the executive at the top not to have your back whenever you are doing your project. You have to keep them up to date through a dashboard or briefings."

Part of that business case Sprague said to make to top officials is the potential for cost savings. Sprague said NASA retired hundreds of servers, reduced the amount of money spent on software licensing, is taking advantage of volume purchasing for hardware since it's all now consistent and employee time is spent on mission critical work instead of making multiple e-mail systems work.

"Before we didn't know a lot about our costs for e-mail because every center did it and even within a center there may be 10 subsystems that were being used," he said. "Cost management, before we didn't know about the costs and it's now something we really can get our fingers around."

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