Government agencies will not be compelled to share a planned all-of-government network, as was attempted with the unsuccessful shared procurement initiative GoProcure, but they will be expected at least to consider the possibility seriously.
“Agencies considering upgrade of their communications infrastructure will undertake a formal assessment of the feasibility and desirability of participating to some degree in the government shared network,” said the State Services Commission’s manager of the Government Shared Network project, Michael Foley, speaking at the recent Govis conference.
“Our current thinking is that the benefits of this [projected network], both fiscally and as an enabler of collaborative behaviour, create a case that’s compelling enough that to mandate it would be to send the wrong signals,” Foley says. “It would tend to drive argument rather than uptake.”
The GoProcure initiative, which, two years ago, sought to mandate participation by core government departments in a common procurement network, met just such argument and little commitment from agencies. It was scaled back and eventually abandoned altogether.
The GSN has been in the planning process for more than two years. The need became evident, Foley says, after an international survey of the use of shared government network infrastructure in national and state governments of similar size to New Zealand showed this country to be well behind the state of play.
“As with our OECD ranking for broadband public networks, [shared government networking] was shown to be an area in which we were not exactly world leaders,” Foley says. “In fact, it seemed to be going on in almost any place but here.”
The New Zealand plan was initially seen as likely to involve two networks; a CityLink-like dark fibre metropolitan-area network linking Wellington’s government agencies, and a wide-area network for those agencies with a “national footprint”. Eventually, the planners realised that these could be essentially the same network and the unified GSN was born.
Initially, it will consist of dual nodes in Wellington, a single node in Auckland and one for other regions. Links between the nodes will be rated initially at 1Gbit/s, with a likely increase to 10Gbit/s at the first scheduled major upgrade.
The GSN cannot share physical links with the Advanced Network planned for research and education, because of the latter’s acceptable use principles, which exclude commercial traffic; but Foley says it is possible that the two networks will share equipment at the point of presence nodes – which the Advanced Network planners call “gigapops”.
The SSC appreciates that there must be founding tenants to make such a voluntary network viable, Foley told his Govis audience, mostly staff of government agencies. “We don’t want to build it then try to sell it to you guys.”
He believes that there are enough committed agencies now to make the development pay. “We’ve encountered no-one who told us ‘This is a crazy idea’,” he says.
Although most agencies will get “either more [service] for the same price or more for less” compared with their existing networks, the justification is not simply financial, Foley says. The benefits of collaborative working among agencies, a feature of government’s digital strategy, should also be taken into account.
The acid test, however, will be a submission of the plan to Cabinet, scheduled for late next month. Assuming approval, the GSN will be deployed by the first quarter of next year.
Multiple suppliers of communications capacity are likely to be chosen, he says, to “encourage contestability and avoid prime-vendor lock-in.”
He admits that plenty of reasons can be dreamed up for hesitating to become involved with a unified network. Agencies may not trust it to keep their data secure, either from the public or other agencies. In response, Foley notes, the design has been certified by the Government Communications Security Bureau for secure transport of data up to “restricted” (but not the rare “secret” or “top secret”) level.
Fear of loss of control is answered by a commitment to keep LAN management, firewalling and the interface to the network within the responsibility of user agencies.
The network will provide an internet link dedicated to government business and therefore likely to give more consistent service levels than agencies’ existing ISPs, Foley says. An ITIL Level 2 (backup rather than frontline) helpdesk will be provided, though there will be “elements of Level 1 [frontline] service.”
In arguments against changing networks, one of the most popular is likely to be “if it [the agency’s present network arrangement] ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Foley says. The response to that is to look at the rapid progress of telecommunications and voice/data integration technology. Against that advance, he suggests, “any legacy network should be considered effectively broken".