NASA Pushes Outsourcing and Upgrades to Stretch Infotech Dollars

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NASA Pushes Outsourcing and Upgrades to Stretch Infotech Dollars


NASA photo

With the successful landing of the Pathfinder spacecraft on Mars and serious technical problems facing Russia's Mir space station, NASA's headquarters these days is bustling with activity. The U.S. space agency's information technology office is no exception.

Steering NASA's information resource management strategies, policies and practices is Ronald S. West, who has been chief information officer since March 1996.

West is pushing to get the most out of the agency's declining information technology budget through consolidation, outsourcing and system upgrades. NASA will spend about $1.5 billion on IT products and services this year.

West, who had stints at Lockheed Corp. and TRW Inc. prior to joining NASA in 1980, says working in the space program was a boyhood dream. He spoke about agency IT challenges to Washington Technology senior editor Patrick Seitz.

WT: What trends are occurring in NASA's procurement of information technology?

WEST: The biggest one is that we are in the process of outsourcing our desktops and our local area networks. That's proceeding on schedule. We plan to have a request for proposals on the street sometime later this fall, in the November time frame.

WT: How much money is budgeted for this effort?

WEST: We are working that right now. Over a five-year period, we are probably talking in the neighborhood of $750 million to $1 billion.

It is to support all NASA employees and all contractor employees where we provide government- furnished equipment. That number is somewhere in the vicinity of 45,000 to 50,000 seats, so it's quite large.

WT: How many contractors will be selected?

WEST: It will be one procurement with two to five winners. Then each one of the NASA centers will work with the winners to select a contractor. It will be a complete outsourcing. The contractor will own the hardware and software licenses.

WT: What benefits will NASA derive from this agencywide outsourcing contract?

WEST: We think there will be a cost savings, but we don't know how much yet. In addition, this will give us configuration control, the ability to move the agency forward as one unit, vs. 10 or more, and really improve our capability to be interoperable.

It will make NASA a more effective operation and allow us to move more toward a paperless system.

WT: Will choosing so many winners for this contract hurt NASA's goal of system interoperability?

WEST: The requirements are going to be very standard, generic. I suspect we will probably end up with something like three contractors. We will have some contract language that ensures the contractors work together in an integrated fashion, preferably without putting NASA in the middle as being the integrator.

WT: Is there a precedent for this contract?

WEST: Not that we've found. The General Services Administration is working right now to do a governmentwide contract for outsourcing desktops and we've talked a fair amount with them. Outside of that, there's not a lot out there, except in industry, which is a different ballgame.

WT: What is the outlook for NASA spending on information technology?

WEST: As part of the zero-base review that we went through about two years ago, we are on a downward slope of about $100 million a year over the next four years.

We not only want to decrease our spending, but increase our capability. This will involve consolidation, outsourcing, getting better configuration control over our assets, and ensuring that people have the right assets to do their jobs, not over or under in their capabilities. That's a big challenge.

WT: Where is NASA on the year 2000 software problem?

WEST: We think we are in good shape. Our estimate is that we will be completed early in 1999. Our projected cost is about $40 million.

Some of our older systems we are in the midst of replacing. We are in the process now of replacing the launch processing system at Kennedy Space Center [in Florida]. They have just finished an upgrade at the mission control center at Johnson Space Center [in Texas]. We are in the process of replacing all of our financial management systems, which will be completed prior to 2000.

WT: What are the biggest challenges you face?

WEST: We have several large efforts going on. Besides the outsourcing project, we are consolidating all of our mainframe computer operations at Marshall Space Flight Center [in Alabama]. That is almost complete. That's been a large undertaking.

We have consolidated the management of all of our supercomputers at Ames Research Center [in California] and we are in the process of putting together an architecture and plans to do physical consolidation of our supercomputers.

Ames is now responsible for managing the supercomputers at each of our various centers, but we are looking at an architecture where we could physically consolidate them. Because the communications capabilities you need to support supercomputers are not as simple as consolidating mainframes, we might end up with two or three locations in the end.

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