With the Pentagon’s Bush-era networking initiatives being canceled one by one, the Navy’s silence about its planned Next-Generation Enterprise Network (NGEN) is rather curious. It has said so little in public since the year began that a casual observer might conclude program managers have entered the Naval Investigative Service’s witness protection program. Part of the explanation for the silence probably is that the government is out of money, and therefore not eager to start another big networking effort unless it’s absolutely necessary. Another part of the explanation may be that planners have figured out the acquisition strategy for NGEN doesn’t make much sense.
NGEN is supposed to replace the Navy/Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI), which with 380,000 computers supporting 700,000 users is the biggest intranet in the world. It was also the biggest IT outsourcing contract ever when the service awarded it to Electronic Data Systems in 2000. EDS was supposed to do everything, including consolidating hundreds of legacy networks, and as a result it today owns most of the hardware and intellectual property associated with the program.
A survey conducted at about the time EDS won the contract found that most of the chief information officers at big companies had little idea what their IT needs would be more than three years into the future, and yet they were routinely entering into ten-year outsourcing arrangements. The Navy made the same mistake, and soon regretted that it was locked into such a long-term relationship. But after some early mis-steps, NMCI began to function smoothly, and user satisfaction has trended steadily upward. Today the system functions very well — so of course, bureaucrats want to bust it up and start over.
The basic idea is to unbundle the various services associated with the Next Generation Enterprise Network and compete them separately. Over 200 companies attended an industry day last year to hear about the plan, so there’s a lot of companies out there who think they are qualified to deliver at least part of what’s needed. But here’s the rub: the current EDS contract expires in October of 2010, and there is no way the Navy will be ready to operate, much less integrate, a successor network when that date rolls around.
NMCI can be kept running on contract extensions until NGEN is ready for prime-time, but the Navy ought to be asking itself some basic questions about the proposed acquisition strategy. Can it really afford to pull oversight and integration responsibilities in-house in the current fiscal environment? If NMCI is going to be the foundation for NGEN, can’t it just be evolved rather than radically restructuring the contracting approach? Is it possible to have desired levels of network security with a balkanized business model? If the official silence about NGEN reflects uncertainty about the answers to these questions, then maybe the service should wait rather than pushing ahead with the “solution” to a problem that may not exist.
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