'Augmented' IT Supports Massive Infrastructure for Virginia District

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Coordinator Tom VanDenburg's network and systems organization at Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) in Virginia manages about 3,900 Cisco switches, 240 routers, 7,500 wireless access points, and a multitude of servers running Windows 2003, Red Hat Linux, HP UX, and Sun Solaris for roughly 240 sites across the county. Each school in the district is wireless; operations run 24x7; and every day the network hosts around 12,000 concurrent users.

The work of keeping that infrastructure up and running is done by a staff that currently numbers about 400. Yet sometimes, even among those people, the expertise required to get a specific project done or handle a unique role can't be found. In those situations, VanDenburg turns to staff augmentation.

Staff augmentation, more commonly known as "contracting," in the halls of FCPS' IT department, involves using staff from an outside firm on a contract basis.

According to supervisor of network engineering Neal Shelton, the use of outside help is based on the unique nature of each project. "We meet internally and determine the scope of the project," he said. "We determine the resources we have available, and, if we identify that we need a resource that isn't currently on staff, we look out to some of our support partners."

Where Augmentation Works
Recent projects in which staff augmentation has been used, according to VanDenburg, are security audits and quality assurance testing on the network equipment, "to make sure it's meeting industry standard best practices," HIPAA compliance, wide area network security auditing, operations center infrastructure, and power and cooling and consumption assessments. It was also used for segments of the district's wireless implementation.

Although the IT organization works with a number of outside companies, all of those projects have actually been handled by a single vendor--Dimension Data. "They consistently and routinely bring some of the best engineers and analysts to our fingertips," said VanDenburg. "When we ask for assistance--whether it be on the wireless side, the local area network or wide area network or security side--they routinely bring out the best people they can find."

VanDenburg said the district has worked with Dimension Data, an international company with headquarters in South Africa, for about 10 years. He counts as part of that the contracts FCPS had with TimeBridge Technologies, a vendor acquired by Dimension Data in 2000.

Shelton insists the staff augmentation isn't just a matter of bringing smarter people to bear on the work done by the district's IT workforce. "We like to think it goes both ways. They bring in a lot of talent. We also give them ideas that they take back with them.... It's mutually beneficial. We think we give them as much as they give us."

Even though the work is primarily project-based, the district also turns to Dimension Data for long-term staffing. One highly technical person has been working in the district for 10 years. "He has a high-level Cisco certification--the [Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert]," said VanDenburg. "He has not only a lot of technical knowledge but also a lot of institutional knowledge.... If we had to hire a CCIE, I don't think we could. They wouldn't want to get an FCPS salary."

VanDenburg said that his group is currently using six outside people. "My Sun Solaris team is two people," he said. "For the work [we] need four people. I've had to hire two people to augment the two employees. We went and found what we needed from a contract. We've contracted them out on a 12-month basis."

The Price of Staff Augmentation
He acknowledges that the price of contractors is definitely heftier than hiring internally--possibly as much as 50 percent higher than paying salary and benefits for a comparable employee. According to a publicly available copy of the award issued by the district for network technical support, as an example, vendors are charging from $48.43 to $67.60 per hour for a network analyst 1 position and from $103.38 to $166.50 per hour for a senior systems architect. Discounts are given for long-term contracts.

"We're a school system, so we have a limited budget," said VanDenburg. "Our salaries are probably not as good as private industry. The only way to get that level of expertise is through staff augmentation. We may not have the positions in house that will meet their salary core requirements."

The department constantly monitors whether it would be less expensive to convert those "professional dollars," as VanDenburg calls them, into a professional position. "But that's not our call. That's something we have to work through HR on."

While it's not always possible to bring people into staff positions, said VanDenburg, it does happen. Senior network analyst Dean Ho joined the district as a permanent employee from the Dimension Data side. "We try to do that when we can, but when we can't, we go out and augment. That is more expensive."

Getting the Right Fit
Vendors currently contracted by the county for network-related work include: AAC Associates, CACI-CMS Information Systems, Dimension Data, EDS, Force 3, General Dynamic Information Technology, L-3 Titan Corp., and TranTech. Each has gone through a request for proposal (RFP) process, managed by the county's purchasing and supply management agency. The most recent RFP for network technology services was done in 2005, and it's coming up for renewal in 2008. The RFP includes a description of the general work to be done, as well as anticipated special projects.

From there, the county performs vendor visits, conducts interviews, and sits through vendor presentations. "You're not just interviewing a company--you want that company to be in step and in tune with your business goals," said VanDenburg. "We feel like Di Data is in step with us. They understand how our organization works. So they do a good job of trying to meet the needs of our business."

But the decision of what companies to include on that master list of service providers is never easy. "It's something we take very seriously," said VanDenburg, "because we're hiring firms to be part of our business."

In fact, that bond between client and vendor is exactly what makes some contractors stand out from others. "We have the same goals," said Shelton. "And the goal is to provide the best instruction to the children. Once that goal is understood, [managing outside staff] isn't difficult at all."

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About the author: Dian Schaffhauser covers high tech, business and higher education for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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