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FTC’s Stanley Lowe Builds 21st Century Data Center in Historic Building

Federal agency managers routinely talk about transformation and improving their infrastructures. For Federal Trade Commission (FTC) CIO Stanley Lowe, transformation of the infrastructure meant the infrastructure. In a building first occupied in 1938, that meant reinforcing floors and ceilings, adding new conduit, boosting power and putting in new racks, all without disturbing the appearance of a classic building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The space is now prepared, but that’s only the beginning.

“We’re replacing every stick of equipment,” Lowe said. The new equipment will support not only a new IT architecture but the very way the agency views IT — as an information utility that will help drive faster and better decision-making by the agency, according to Lowe.” We want to change the paradigm to one of more managing data and information to make more use it if for strategic decisions,” Lowe said.

But a boring taken of the old data center’s floor, located above the parking garage, showed soft concrete. In addition, the data center’s electrical service was obsolete. First things first, the transformation started with shoring up an aging building. The effort is called SURE, for secure, usable, reliable and expandable. Lowe said that the General Services Administration acted as general contractor in preparing the building itself, and now the network wiring infrastructure is completed as well. The FTC now uses voice over IP for telephony.

“Now we need to fix the cooling, storage and servers,” Lowe said. Storage capacity will be quadrupled to 100 terabytes, expandable to 200T. And all new servers are coming. Yet from outside of the data center doors, the hallway looks as it did the day the building opened, Lowe said. “It turned out wonderfully well,” he added.

At the data level, Lowe said, his shop is redesigning its Active Directory to take advantage of the security and management protocols available in up-to-date user directories. A new and unified messaging platform will let FTC workers have secure access to data resources from remote locations, whether using notebook computers or cellular devices. Some server consolidation will occur, with a 38 percent reduction in the number of physical machines, Lowe said. Plus, regional FTC offices are having their IT centralized at headquarters, and some legacy applications use older code that just doesn’t play well in a virtualized environment. For example, Lowe cited the FTC’s national registry of imported clothing tags, which is housed in an older Oracle database. Similarly, the agency’s case management system, launched in 1995 and laden with many add-ons since, will still have its own server.

But also in the plans is a central data repository incorporating several streams of information the FTC gathers as part of its mission. This will be overlayed with data analytics and business intelligence software and, on top of that, a web application layer. Meanwhile, Lowe’s team is developing what he called a Logical Operational Data Model (LODM) to which new applications will be required to conform. The goal is to give the agency’s economists and regulatory enforcement staff faster ways to spot consumer fraud trends or to perform econometric modeling in competitiveness determinations.

As Lowe put it, “What will happen to the price of bananas if two banana companies merge? We can do it now, but it takes too long.”

Like many CIOs, Lowe is facing decisions over whether to use contractors or federal employees at a time when the administration is urging management to insource. For Lowe, a good guide to a decision is whether the activity is long term or short term. Installing, say, a new SharePoint server — a discrete, one-time task — might be better left to a contractor, while long term, daily operation of the data center might be better suited to employees. Lowe also looks at long term costs. One benefit of the new data setup will be a smaller proportion of the agency’s budget being spent on infrastructure than before. He estimates the transformation will cost around $30 million over four years.

Lowe said that he’ll start considering using a cloud platform, but the new data center was in the works for several years before the government — or at least the Obama administration’s Office of Management and Budget — went in whole hog for cloud computing. In the meantime, Lowe figured, “let’s use what the taxpayers have already paid for.”

Lowe also thinks about the need to keep bringing in new people to the federal government as the aging workforce portends the departure of experience over the next few years. “Especially with the younger workforce, people coming into government will be used to doing things differently from us old geeks,” he said. “They are used to being in constant contact, bouncing ideas off each other, no matter where they are. They expect that same thing here in government.”

The technology to support that mode of working needs to be secured but not blocked, Lowe said. “Security is a concern, but I think it is something we can address. It’s something the government as a whole has to look at if we are going to attract the best and the brightest.”

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