Better, Faster, Cheaper
Small governments are buying Internet servers at a steady clip in a quest for better public service, higher productivity and lower costs, according to contractors and analysts. Like corporations, government agencies are using the Internet ? especially the World Wide Web ? and the server products that support it to move beyond data storage, search and retrieval. Government Internet applications today range far and wide, from military training to the renewal of drivers' licenses. By Carolyn Hirschman
"More and more people and organizations continue to embrace the benefits of the Web, namely, its ubiquity and open standards. It's moved from a mechanism to post general text and graphics to that of a transaction platform," says Colin Mahoney, an Internet analyst at the Boston-based Yankee Group.
Part and parcel of this trend is the need to upgrade computer networks. On the shopping lists of many procurement officers are Internet servers ? the computers and related software that help many scattered users read and send e-mail, search databases, access Web sites and much more, all using the communications protocols of the Internet.
Internet servers run the gamut from small desktop personal computers to refrigerator-size boxes and even mainframes. The larger the machine, the more powerful (and expensive) it is and the more users it can accommodate.
Whatever their size, all Internet servers share the same basic technology: installation of application software in one place, the Internet, instead of on multiple desktop computers. Governments use Internet servers in two general ways: to permit outsiders ? vendors and the general public ? to access information and conduct transactions and to allow employees to communicate more efficiently through an intranet. For example, externally, attorneys can search patents online; internally, the Air Force modernized its civilian-personnel information systems. More and more agencies are following the corporate lead by creating intranets, experts say. "It's not much of a technological leap from the Internet. It's using the same protocols but applying them to an internal network instead of an external network," says Payton Smith, manager for strategic studies at Federal Sources Inc., McLean, Va. The commonwealth of Virginia, for example, bought an Internet server and a database server in June for a system to monitor state agencies' compliance with year 2000 remediation. The equipment cost less than $80,000. The secure intranet allows 112 agencies to submit monthly progress reports via the Internet on their efforts to ensure the continued delivery of critical services, such as drug enforcement and the issuance of welfare checks, after Jan. 1, 2000, says Peter Pramis, a technical manager at the Virginia Century Date Change Initiative office, which is overseeing the program. The office hired James Martin & Co., a Fairfax, Va.-based systems integrator, to guide installation of the Windows NT-based system, which uses Dell and Gateway hardware and Microsoft software.
Healthy Market Thanks to Virginia and other buyers, sales of Internet servers are climbing. Worldwide factory revenues for server hardware grew 7 percent to $60.4 billion in 1997 over the previous year, according to International Data Corp., a market research and consulting firm in Framingham, Mass. IBM Corp. of Armonk, N.Y., remains the leader, with a 25 percent share of the overall market and a leading position in the high-end segment favored by many government users. On the software side, the number of Internet server units shipped is expected to jump from 718,810 in 1996 to about 1.1 million in 2001, a 53 percent increase, says IDC. Apache, free, downloadable software developed by a volunteer consortium, is the acknowledged leader among Web servers, according to a July survey by Netcraft, a networking consultancy in Bath, England. Other leading products include Lotus Domino Go, Microsoft Internet Information Server and Netscape Enterprise. IDC reported no government-specific sales figures for Internet server products, but, according to several vendors, that market is healthy and growing. Demand is all over the map, from low-end PC servers running on Windows NT to high-end, Unix-based systems. Prices range from a few thousand dollars to $1 million and up per server. "Government is one of our major adopters of this technology," says Tim Dougherty, Internet solutions program director for IBM's RS/6000 division. That product line, which starts at $150,000 and heads into the millions for the top servers, has seen "significant double digit growth," he says, without revealing exact sales. Most demand for Intergraph Federal Systems' NT-based servers centers on midrange and high-end products because they provide more bang for the buck at agencies that want multiple applications to run on a single server, according to Jim Flowers, marketing manager for Intergraph Federal in Reston, Va. "The government buyers have gotten pretty intelligent in using the Internet," he says. "There are more savvy buyers out there now." What characteristics do agencies look for in an Internet server? Federal buyers often want the superior reliability found in mid- and high-end servers, contractors say. And that means paying more for such things as replaceable hard drives and redundant power supplies to ensure that a system keeps on running, even when something goes wrong. "They don't want data to be offline, so you want systems to be up all the time," Flowers says. At the same time, buyers want scalability, says IBM's Dougherty. Though known for its top-of-the-line machines, IBM also sells to governments plenty of lower-end 43Ps, F50s and H50s, which can be easily upgraded as more capacity is needed or more users come online. Better, Cheaper, Faster A variety of factors are driving the government market for Internet servers, say contractors and analysts. Chief among them are growing use of the Internet, a desire to boost productivity and the need to cut costs. Government offices close, but the Net is always open, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Citizens can access information around the clock. Business can be transacted more often. "The added benefit is you make government more accessible to the general public on their schedule as opposed to the limited time a government office or phone may be manned," says Dougherty. "It makes government more friendly and more accessible." It's possible now, for example, for people to project their Social Security benefits online, and, in a few states, to renew a driver's license. Internet servers also make it possible for government workers, as well as contractors and the general public, to access information more quickly. Records and other data can be collected and distributed more easily. For example, some federal agencies are posting requests for proposals on the Web with no paper copies. "It's cheaper, faster. It's probably better for the people doing the bidding as well," says Tom Baybrook, vice president of Intergraph Federal Systems. Finally, governments want to save money. The downsizing trend still exerts significant pressure to cut staff and reduce costs, experts say. Internet servers can help in several ways. One way is to save money on printing costs. Distributing documents on the Internet reduces the need for time consuming office visits and telephone calls. One hundred e-mail messages can be sent as cheaply as one. All in all, eliminating printing requirements can yield a 20 percent to 25 percent return on investment, Dougherty says. Another cost cutter is centralized data storage and access. New software and subsequent updates can be installed on the Web instead of on thousands of desktops. Legacy systems can be easily adapted, too. It's all made possible by deploying applications and Internet servers with Web browsers. This move to a Web-based environment can shorten system installation time by weeks, because it eliminates the need to write and verify many test plans and to deploy lots of desktop software, says Pramis of Virginia's year 2000 compliance office. "We've eliminated a huge back-end component, which is doing the integration testing on the workstation," he says. Servers on the Job Despite some concerns about Internet security ? many agencies worry about the inadvertent release of private or classified data ? governments are finding plenty of uses for servers as they integrate the Internet into their daily operations. These uses range from major overhauls of computer systems to small initiatives, such as putting up a Web site. One big job involved the Naval Sea Systems Command's purchase and installation of 80 Intergraph servers at four naval shipyards in Portsmouth, N.H.; Norfolk, Va.; Puget Sound, Wash.; and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The $6.5 million project, performed under the NAVSEA CAD-2 contract, converted operating systems and modernized the e-mail system. "We needed to have people go [electronically] from one shipyard to another and be able to log in, get their mail and files and have current user services available," says Len Christensen, who headed the shipyards' single desktop solution control board last summer, when the three-month project began. He is now a private contractor with SRA International Inc., Arlington, Va. Under the old, "unmanageable" system, the shipyards used two operating systems, Banyan Vines and Windows NT 4.0, Christensen says. Workstations had to be rebooted often. Communications among personnel at the four shipyards was difficult because of the need to migrate from one operating system to another. The Sea Systems Command decided to convert to NT alone, a process to be completed in about 18 months. It also installed Microsoft Exchange for e-mail. The improvements are already apparent, Christensen says. Electronic communication is now standardized, and workloads can be spread more easily among shipyards, he says. On a smaller scale, IBM sold a single RS/6000 220 Web server to an Army research laboratory in Maryland two years ago so it could host a Web site. "We had a lot of information we wanted to make available on the Web. We wanted to set up a Web server. We wanted one that would be robust, high performance and inexpensive. The RS/6000 fit the bill," says Robert Rosen, the lab's director of information management. Previously, the lab disseminated information ? phone numbers, program descriptions and more ? by phone, fax and mail. "People would call, they would get routed around, and hopefully they would get what they were asking for," Rosen says. In contrast, the Web site "makes their search for information quicker. It saves them time." The Army benefits, too, by avoiding multiple searches for the same records and having to post information only once. Whatever their ultimate applications, government purchasing of Internet servers seems destined to grow, contractors and analysts say. And it's better late than never. "The government has been known for being late to catch on to technology," says Abinash Tripathy, a technologist at Oracle Corp.'s government division in Bethesda, Md. "There are lots of departments that use traditional mainframes that didn't migrate to client/servers," Tripathy says. "The Web is an opportunity for them to make all that information held in mainframes accessible to people."n