High Speed Network Accelerates Veterans' Benefits

High Speed Network Accelerates Veterans' Benefits<@VM>Networking: The Other End of the Spectrum

By Jon William Toigo


Members of the high-profile team that built a pilot document management system for the Washington regional office of the Veterans Benefits Administration are hopeful this work will lead to a role on a larger system the agency plans to deploy next year.

Led by systems integrator Computer Sciences Corp. of El Segundo, Calif., the industry team installed the automated claims processing system, which includes a 100 MB-per-second ethernet network, late last year.

Compared to older manual methods of sharing veteran claims documentation, the new network is a quantum leap forward in information access and customer service, industry and government officials said.

The pilot project enabled CSC and its partners to "lay the groundwork for a revolution in the way that VBA can serve veterans," said Fred Messing, senior consulting engineer at CSC and team project leader.

The team was brought together by Highway 1, a Washington non-profit educational center on information technology. Other members include Cisco Systems, Eastman Software, IBM Corp., Kodak, Microsoft Corp. and Radiant Systems.

Joseph Thompson, undersecretary for benefits at the Veterans Benefits Administration, said the pilot document management system is a prototype for further analysis.

"We are hoping to roll out imaging to our other offices commencing with the next fiscal year. We will look at whether this is a good base to work from," he said. "The Highway 1 team designed it to grow, but we don't know yet whether it will grow the way that we want. It may need more features or different features."

The project has given team members a better understanding of the benefits administration processes, and that may be an advantage to them when a formal competitive bid for a national networked system is announced, Messing said. He would not speculate about the contract's potential value.

Should the Veterans Benefits Administration move forward with this architecture or another, as much as 10 percent of its operational efforts spent on "non-value-added activities, such as moving paper folders," would disappear, Messing said.

Eliminating such work — which Messing said amounts to 500 employees, or $25 million per year — will allow the agency to shift resources to adjudicate claims and eliminate a six-month backlog, he said.

Also, agency officials could respond immediately to inquiries rather than make veterans "wait 10 days for a letter," he said. With this type of solution, the operator would just click on the veteran's name and call up a folder.

That is an extremely important customer service benefit of the system, Messing said. While veterans understand there can be reasons for delays, he said, "they get upset when they call up and someone says 'I don't know.' "

Part of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Veterans Benefits Administration administers nonmedical benefits programs, including compensation, pensions, education, loan guarantees and vocational rehabilitation. It also administers the nation's fourth largest life insurance program.

In 1998, the benefits administration provided monthly compensation and pension checks to nearly 3.3 million veterans and their families, Thompson said. In addition, about 3 million insurance payments are processed monthly, and VBA administers close to $15 million in VA home loans annually.

When Thompson became undersecretary in 1997, he discovered significant backlogs in processing veteran disability claims. The 11,000 employees working in the agency's 52 regional offices were "inundated by paper," he said. Modernization was required, but the agency lacked the budget to explore alternative technologies and test possible solutions.

In December 1997, Thompson approached the National Partnership for Reinventing Government to "find out whether anyone would be interested in adopting VBA" on a pro bono basis. The request was referred to Highway 1, a non-profit group of technology vendors that frequently undertakes projects for government customers.

Thompson met with Highway 1 representatives in January 1998, and they agreed to help the agency. That May, the CSC-led team visited the benefit administration's Washington regional office and began collecting background information.

Messing said Thompson gave the team a fairly open-ended objective. "He wanted us to explore what could be done to help VBA respond to claims more efficiently, and he needed a solution by the end of the year," Messing said.

After analyzing the agency's requirements, a revolutionary systems approach was favored over an incremental improvement to get the agency onto a new track, Messing said. Delivering a fast solution required using off-the-shelf hardware and software products, which in turn required that VBA adjust its work processes to fit with the new products, he said.

The proposed technology and time line initially met with skepticism from agency managers and some project team participants, Messing said. But by June 1998, an agreement was forged. The partners provided products while CSC provided integration services, said Messing.

"No one was getting paid to do this work," said Messing, who declined to quantify CSC's investment or estimate the total cost of the pilot project. CSC was responsible for definition, architecture development, scheduling, program management and testing.

The pilot system consisted of a document image capture and management solution that digitized and automated VBA's paper-based claims folders. Messing said the objective was to demonstrate the gains that would accrue if paper documents were digitized and placed onto a network so they could be shared more readily by claims adjusters.

To help balance costs, each team member was responsible for installing and configuring their own products, Messing said.

Microsoft provided licenses for the NT operating system, as well as its Outlook Mail product, a Certificate Server and MS-Forms. Kodak delivered two scanners, and Radiant Systems donated image capture software.

Eastman Software supported the project with its electronic Work Folder, which was customized to mimic physical work files used by VBA, and its Imaging for Business application. IBM provided a smart-card security system to control access to sensitive information maintained on the pilot system.

In addition to application software components, the solution required a suitable network to meet file exchange and sharing requirements. Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif., handled all networking requirements, Messing said.

Jim McCaul, a major accounts manager with Cisco Systems Federal Operations in Herndon, Va., said delivering a networking solution for the pilot project required careful attention to the objectives of the project and its constraints. The application was key to sizing the network.

McCaul said the VBA's Washington regional office had a shared 10 MB-per-second ethernet network that was "inadequate to support the volume of traffic we anticipated from the document management application."

A decision was made early on to place the 12 claims processors working with the pilot system in a separate, higher speed subnetwork, which was integrated with the slower speed main network by means of a Cisco 2924M Catalyst switch.

The solution will enable the Washington regional office to migrate to a switched ethernet backbone in the future, he said. The subnetwork operates at 100 MB per second.

Cisco also upgraded the routers that connected the local area network within the Washington office to VBA's wide area network, said McCaul.

This facilitated batch transfers of records and e-mails between the Washington regional office and the VBA's records repository in St. Louis.

In November 1998, the deployment was complete, and testing and training were conducted by CSC and its Highway 1 partners.

Jim Massa, director of global government alliances for Cisco Systems, said morale was extremely high among team members and VBA's Washington personnel.

"These people used to push carts around the office loaded with files. 'Who has the file?' was the process that determined the service that was being delivered to the veteran and his family," Massa said. "With a networked document management solution, we knew we could make a difference."

By Jon William Toigo

The Energy Department is taking high speed networking to the extreme with its Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative.

The initiative, a result of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty signed by the United States in September 1996, is intended to deliver the world's fastest supercomputers for use in nuclear weapon simulations.

To date, the computing initiative has funded three supercomputer development projects at Sandia National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory, respectively.

The development of the Los Alamos supercomputer, nicknamed Blue Mountain, was handed to Silicon Graphics Inc. and its subcontractors as part of a $121.5 million contract awarded in December 1996. Other awards were made to IBM Corp. of Armonk, N.Y., and Intel Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., for supercomputers at Livermore and Sandia.

SGI of Mountain View, Calif., continues to build upon its supercomputer implementation at Los Alamos to advance the Energy Department's goal of realizing a 100 TeraOp (100 trillion calculations per second) supercomputer by 2004.

Blue Mountain uses SGI's HIPPI 6400 network technology to enable 48 computers to act as one supercomputer and provide Los Alamos scientists with the capability to model a nuclear explosion without actually detonating a warhead.

Steve Younger, associate laboratory director for nuclear weapons with the Energy Department's Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, said the test ban treaty effectively "moved the stewardship of our nation's nuclear weapons from its 50-year foundation in nuclear testing to one based in science and simulation."

By November 1998, the Blue Mountain project yielded the world's fastest supercomputer, performing more than 1.6 trillion mathematical operations per second (1.6 TeraOps).

Jim Danneskiold, public affairs officer at Los Alamos, said the Blue Mountain achievement was an important milestone in the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative's aggressive plan to realize a 100 TeraOp supercomputer by 2004.

The 100 TeraOp processing objective is not an arbitrary one, he said. "It represents the computing power required to maintain a high level of confidence in the U.S. atomic arsenal by using simulation-based testing," Danneskiold said. Similarly, the target date for the initiative was carefully chosen "by looking at the age and retirement dates of personnel with live nuclear test experience," he said. About half of those personnel, who are needed to validate the simulations, will have retired by 2004.

Derek Robb, corporate program manager for the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative at SGI, said the SGI supercomputer was architecturally different than those of the past. Rather than one large processor, Blue Mountain comprises 48 separate 128-processor computers assembled in a modular architecture and sharing a high speed communications network, called an interconnect.

The current computer modules "were not stressed" by the benchmark tests used to establish the record processing speed announced in November, Robb said.

The fundamental architecture of the solution "could be extended to 30 TeraOps, given higher speed processors that are currently on the road map," he said.

The record set by Blue Mountain was limited only by the speed of the network interconnect itself, Robb said. The original interconnect used 36, 16-port, high-performance parallel interface, HIPPI-800 switches from SGI partner Essential/ODS Networks Inc. of Albuquerque, N.M.

The HIPPI-800 switches enable parallel data transfers between SGI processing modules at rates of 1,600 megabits per second. While extremely fast, the interconnect proved a bottleneck when operating the Blue Mountain supercomputer at tested speeds.

John Gibbon, vice president of engineering with Essential/ODS Networks, said the HIPPI-800 switches were understood to be an interim deployment, useful until newer HIPPI-6400-based switch technologies could be brought online.

By early 1999, four HIPPI-6400 switches from Essential/ODS Networks had already been deployed at Los Alamos, Gibbons said.

Once all eleven switches are implemented in a meshed topology, a Gigabyte System Network will be established that will provide adequate bandwidth to support over 3 trillion transactions per second, Gibbon said.

SGI's Robb agreed with Gibbon, noting that the HIPPI-6400 upgrade is under way.

He added that SGI is preparing to bid on the next Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative milestone, a 30 TeraOp supercomputer, deliverable in the 2001-02 time frame.

In February 1998, SGI competitor IBM was awarded an $85 million contract extending its Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative supercomputer project at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to include the development and delivery of a 10 TeraOp supercomputer.

This computer, known as Option White, is slated for introduction in 2000.

SGI is planning to bid for the next initiative award, the 30 TeraOp system at Los Alamos, within the next three months, Robb said.

Blue Mountain offers the capability to scientists to model the effects of a nuclear blast. SGI's multicomputer network, based on HIPPI-6400 switching, demonstrates how networks must match application requirements to deliver optimal performance.

During 1999, the supercomputer is expected to execute more than 80 million trillion operations focusing on various weapons issues. This is roughly 10 times the number of computing operations executed in support of the U.S. atomic stockpile from the earliest days of the Manhattan Project through 1992, the last year of underground testing.

Spinoffs from the visualization, interconnect network and multiprocessing technologies underpinning Blue Mountain already are being put to use in non-weapons applications.

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