11th-hour snag

Now that we had the design characteristics down, it was time to bid the project. This is where we hit our first speed bump. What is the best way to procure a project of this size and complexity? Should it be an RFP? An RFQ? Or some sort of hybrid of the two? Should we create one large master RFP covering every aspect of the project or divide up the bid into several smaller procurement vehicles?

In thinking this through, it was obvious this would be such a complex project that we weren't entirely sure we could cover everything with a single procurement vehicle.

We realised there were three elements in the project, which corresponded closely to the OSI model. One was the fibre infrastructure - often referred to as Layer 0. The second element was the optical DWDM gear, or Layer 1. Finally, there was the Ethernet element, or the Layer 2 and Layer 3 equipment. We could therefore issue multiple bids for the fibre infrastructure and optical equipment. Another bid would be for the Ethernet equipment.

Breaking the RFP into components offered the additional advantage of making the procurement documents easier to write and evaluate. Plus, this offered an advantage to vendors, who might be unable to bid on all components of the network.

In July 2004, as we were doing our analysis of the fibre-infrastructure responses, the California Public Utilities Commission issued a landmark decision permitting PG&E and other utilities to sell unused strands of dark fibre to third parties. This created alternatives that became known as "managed and integrated" services.

With dark fibre we would own and operate the fibre network. Managed fibre would let the service provider own and operate the fibre network while UCSF owned and operated the optical DWDM gear. The integrated option offered a turnkey package that provided multiple lambdas through the utility-owned fibre. The carrier would both provide the fibre infrastructure and own and operate the DWDM gear.

The cost for the integrated solution was expected to be a fraction of the cost to lease dark fibre. Of course, we learned all this literally at the 11th hour, just before we were to award the fibre-infrastructure RFP.

We had two choices: award the project to the winning vendor, or pull the fibre RFP and rewrite it to let the carriers bid on the new options. That would delay the project, but in the end the estimated 33 percent cost reduction prevailed, and we elected to pull the RFP.

Back to the drawing board

We were convinced that we had done everything possible to educate and win over upper management and the campus constituency. We had prepared PowerPoint presentations to explain our technical and business cases. We had discussed NGMAN with a number of campus committees. We had talked one-on-one with administrative decision makers. We even hired consultants in early 2005 to assist us in the NGMAN vendor-selection process. We had covered all our bases - or so we thought.

The consultants travelled around campus interviewing key researchers and faculty about NGMAN. You can imagine our shock when they reported they had heard three key questions repeatedly during their interviews: What exactly was NGMAN? Why did the university need a new network? Wasn't there a better use for the money?

Clearly, whatever venues we had used, whatever discussions we had held and however we attempted to sell the NGMAN project, we had missed the target.

We realised we had to start the process all over again. We had to go back and meet with the key researchers, staff and faculty. We needed to explain why the current campus network needed to be replaced, describe the original design assumptions that had created NGMAN and justify why this project was an appropriate use of campus resources.

This had to be done at the same time as we continued to move the NGMAN procurement process along - except now we faced new uncertainties. We didn't know how much of NGMAN would be built, how much funding we could count on or how much campus support we could build for the project.

Finally, after much discussion, and more than a little gray hair on the design team's part, the university approved building the core of the network in June 2006. The funding commitment for the core was now certain.

However, the secondary sites were open to discussion - and there was considerable dialogue as to which secondary sites would be connected directly to NGMAN. For example, it was decided for cost reasons not to link the Mount Zion and VA Medical Centre sites.

Law & order: UCSF

There was one final twist. In October 2006, a federal grand jury in San Francisco indicted a former contract employee in the procurement office of UCSF on public-corruption charges.

Steven Donnelly was charged with selling confidential information about AT&T's bid to a Verizon employee in exchange for a BMW automobile. Donnelly later met with the employee and agreed to provide the employee with a thumb drive containing the confidential material for $5,000 rather than the BMW. Verizon fully cooperated in this investigation, according to the US Attorney's Office.

Of course, this set the process back again, because UCSF officials had to decide how to proceed. Finally, UCSF awarded the bid in May to AT&T's Healthcare Markets Group. In the end, we decided to go with the integrated, turnkey option. AT&T is expected to take six months to construct the network and one month to test it. UCSF then will have an additional month for our own acceptance testing.

NGMAN will go live in early 2008. Afterward, there will be a nine to 12-month migration period when we will move users from the ATM-SONET network to NGMAN. After that, the ATM-SONET network will be sunset.

It has been painful to run a first-rate medical institution on a 1990s network, but UCSF has managed to work around the current network's limitations by accepting network capabilities that are significantly less than state of the art.

This has not been a problem for users who mainly do email and database lookups. It has been more problematic for users who wish to do video distribution, high-bandwidth medical imaging, and enhanced-performance and security-based applications.

While the delays have been frustrating, NGMAN will be here shortly to remove many of these network-related limitations and let the university move into 21st Century network technologies.

Lessons learnt

The NGMAN project taught us important lessons about selling major projects to a large and diverse university. Many of these lessons contain principles that can be used for any enterprise network project.

* Establish a strong business case at the beginning of the project: It is important that the proposed network make financial and business, as well as technical, sense. The days of implementing new IT projects simply because they look technically promising are gone. Today IT is all about business benefits.

* Sell the project: It is essential that you obtain buy-in from key decision makers. This extends far past technical decision makers. The key influencers need to be consulted, no matter where they work in the organisation.

* Understand the project scope and funding from the beginning: It sounds obvious, but setting a scope with which all parties agree and obtaining a reliable funding source aren't as straightforward as they once were. Today, more homework is needed to assure that upper management, the budget office and the network designers are all on the same page.

Jeffrey Fritz is director of enterprise network services for the University of California, San Francisco, and a member of the Network World Lab Alliance. He is the author of Remote LAN Access: A Guide for Networkers and the Rest of Us, and Sensible ISDN Data Applications.