The Feds Warm To White Boxes


With the increased profile of federal enterprise architecture and service-oriented architecture at the integration level, agencies have been able to avoid what's called "vendor lock" and proprietary solutions. The government buying community itself has gotten smarter, Jackson says. The federal enterprise architectures supported by many government agencies have caused organizations to view systems as a series of components, making it impossible for any one vendor to provide a turnkey solution.

While there are certain policy-driven and risk-aversion factors that discourage consideration of white-box solutions at the agency level, CSC, a Falls Church, Va.-based solution provider, is seeing acceptance and exploration of the concept. Agencies increasingly procure services and focus less on the technologies that enable the delivery of services, says Yogesh Khanna, vice president and CTO of IT infrastructure solutions for the public-sector division of CSC. At the same time, systems integrators establish system-level architectures that can be decoupled easily to allow for trade-off analysis, allowing the customer to select or swap out components of a particular solution over the life of a contract.

"For CSC, this approach is very much a part of our best practices," Khanna says. "If a federal agency customer already has a policy management tool in its current security operations, we make every attempt to leverage and reuse that tool as a part of a larger integrated solution, helping protect the customer's investment. So while the white-box approach isn't common in the case of product solutions, the principles are often applied to build integrated system solutions for the federal government."

In another example, Baltimore-based solution provider Jacob & Sundstrom favors white-box deployment to support the delivery of smart cards to 85,000 employees and contractors with the Social Security Administration. A driving force behind this project is the Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD) 12, which mandates that all federal agencies adopt a single ID standard for controlling physical and logical access by 2008. The resulting solution will integrate products from RSA and other vendors, so the cards can operate with multiple agency systems.

"Many of the problems we've faced stem from the fact that none of these products were designed to integrate with each other," says Matthew Neuman, director of business development at Jacob & Sundstrom. "Much of our effort was in working with companies to develop solutions for integrating them into the overall system. With standards being set [by government directives], software and hardware manufacturers realize they need to provide for integration efforts to meet federal customer requirements."

McLean, Va.-based Keane built the Enterprise Solution-Supply (ES-S) for the Air Force that acts as a backbone for operational logistics execution. The package incorporates Java application servers from Oracle and middleware from Microsoft, IBM, Mitem and Unisys. Now, if the Air Force needs a mission-critical repair part, Keane's solution will allow it to track one down across the globe more readily, in real-time. And the solution will allow applications to be added to the system more rapidly and cost-effectively.

"There's been a strong case for best-in-class multivendor solutions, but the difficulties of integration have favored a single-vendor model," says Tom Mowbray, enterprise architect at Keane. "White-box solutions can increase the functionality match between commercial off-the-shelf and government requirements. [They] also have more flexibility and extensibility. With many single-vendor solutions, the agency must wait for the vendor to implement new functions. With white-box [solutions], federal agencies can modernize or extend individual parts without replacing the whole suite."

These are all compelling arguments for custom systems--arguments that have not been ignored by federal watchdog organizations. Federal Acquisition Regulation11.105 states that agency procurements "shall not be written so as to require a particular brand name, product or feature of a product, peculiar to one manufacturer, thereby precluding consideration of a product manufactured by another company." Rather, agencies are to articulate a benchmark for performance.

That's good in theory, but the fact remains: A cultural change is needed before this alternative stands on a level playing field with proprietary systems. Solution providers need to get in early.

"White-box solutions can become a major player if the providers reach the tech-specific folks in government before the request for proposal goes out," says Mark Amtower, a federal government market consultant for solution providers and the founder/president of FederalDirect.com. "There are a number of appealing aspects of white-box solutions--[from] favorable pricing [to the] ability to use agency logos instead of manufacturer names."