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Navy makes first awards in new ‘innovation cell’ for rapid IT acquisition

In March, the Navy launched its Innovation Cell to test whether it’s practical for the military to conduct a significant information technology acquisition — from the requirements phase all the way to selecting a final vendor— in less than a year. It appears that the answer is yes.

On Tuesday, the Navy notified four firms that it’s picked their products to solve two out of the three “enterprise challenges” it issued to industry on March 26. Mostly off-the-shelf IT offerings, providing enhanced virtual desktops and revamped network architectures aboard Navy bases will be integrated into the massive Navy Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI) soon. And within the next few months, the service expects to decide on technologies to deal with the third and most complex  challenge: analytics tools to crunch data across more than 40 stovepiped Navy human resources systems.

“Our whole focus has been speed-to-market and keeping pace with commercial IT, and I think we’ve done pretty well for the first time out of the chute,” Victor Gavin, the Navy’s program executive officer for enterprise information systems said in an interview with Federal News Radio Tuesday. “We’re well on our way to our goal of going from concept to delivery in one year.”

For the virtual desktop challenge, the Navy told industry it wanted to enable a more mobile workforce by extending all of the functionality and security of NMCI to a hosted virtual environment that lets its users access their applications and data from anywhere and from any computer, including personally-owned ones. Citrix, VMWare and HP, three of the approximately 100 companies who submitted  white papers as part of the Innovation Cell process were told Tuesday that their products fit the bill.

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Another enterprise challenge to restructure NMCI’s campus-area architecture — effectively, the interconnections between servers, routers and desktops on a given Navy base — will be handled by Tellabs. That firm’s passive optical network (PON) technology will be used on stateside bases to drastically upgrade the effective network bandwidth on each installation without the need to install new, expensive fiber optic cables.

The third challenge, which asked industry for ideas on how the Navy could mine and analyze information from dozens of personnel databases which currently do not communicate with one another, is still a work in progress.

“This was the one where we had the biggest challenge in defining our own requirements and understanding the art of the possible,” Gavin said.

But he said the Innovation Cell process has let the Navy move from a broad goal to prototyping specific service offerings by five discrete vendors. PEO-EIS created a “sandbox” in partnership with the Office of Naval Research to test how those companies’ tools will or won’t achieve the ultimate objective of giving personnel decision makers an integrated picture of all the potential factors that affect recruitment, retention and promotion for sailors and civilians.

“And we’re going to run real Navy personnel data through these products to help us further refine our requirements, get them into the hands of Navy Personnel Command and ultimately into our manpower, personnel training and education environment,” Gavin said.

From a process standpoint, the Innovation Cell was premised on the notion that the government’s usual  acquisition process — formal requests for information, followed by requests for proposals and sometimes a protest by the losing bidder — usually results in a procurement decision at just about the time the product in question is headed for obsolescence.

The Navy’s idea is to outline its IT deficiencies in extremely broad strokes and then create an ongoing, two-way dialogue with everyone from large defense firms to garage innovators about what the state of the art is, how private firms are using commercial IT, and, hopefully, put the government in a position to buy a new technology almost as soon as it hits the commercial marketplace.

In the first go-round, the Navy asked vendors to submit informal white papers to solve the three IT challenges it delineated in March. Officials received more than 100 responses, more than they expected.

“But we still need to do a better job of communicating with industry,” Gavin said. “The next step is an online portal where we can put all our data and let people have access to all of our activities. And our goal is to have that available for our next set of enterprise challenges.”

The Navy also has more work to do when it comes to creating the contracting mechanisms needed to actually procure a particular piece of technology once the Innovation Cell has helped program managers match their needs with what’s available or forthcoming in the commercial IT space.

In the case of the two enterprise challenges in which the service announced decisions on Tuesday, the Navy was able to sidestep many of the troublesome details of the Federal Acquisition Regulation because, from a legal perspective, the government isn’t buying the new solutions for virtual desktops and campus-area networking on its own. Instead, it’s directing their purchase via complex subcontracting arrangements under the Navy’s existing contract with HP, the prime vendor for the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet.

For that reason, officials weren’t able to say how much the new services would cost the Navy in relation to what it’s paying for existing NMCI services; pricing is still a matter of negotiation between HP and the new subcontractors.

And there are plenty of IT challenges in the Navy’s wheelhouse that can’t be solved by simple modifications to contracts it already has in place. So while the Innovation Cell seems to have sped up the process of letting the Navy decide what it wants to buy, the broader problem of how to rapidly get dollars on contract is still a major challenge.

“Clearly it’s the elephant in the room, and it’s the area we need to tackle next,” Gavin said. “The traditional process takes 300 days from the time we put a bid on the street to the time we get a contract awarded and then another period of time before the product’s actually delivered. That doesn’t work for commercial IT given Moore’s Law. At the same time, the first goal of the Innovation Cell wasn’t to make a blanket change to the DoD acquisition regulations, it was to get new companies involved and to deliver new products to the fleet a lot faster, given the rules that we have today. I think we’ve shown that we can do that.”