Doubts cast over UKonline e-government contract

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Doubts cast over UKonline e-government contract

Loudcloud - the IT infrastructure services company founded by Netscape browser inventor Marc Andreessen - admits it will face real challenges in delivering on the outsourcing contract for the UK Government's Web-based services portal, ukonline.gov.uk.

"Right now, ukonline.gov.uk only works like a giant search engine, and that is really the least of the Government's problems when it comes to this project. They are not putting enough effort into the spaghetti in the back end," said IDC analyst James Weir.

"Although we don't know the numbers, this has to be a pretty big deal for Loudcloud, but they've got their work cut out," he added.

Loudcloud - which won the contract last week - will provide site architecture, select the hardware and software to be used on ukonline.gov.uk, and service and manage collocation and network connectivity.

"Ukonline.gov.uk is one of the most important sites in the Government and the bid presented by Loudcloud won because it was the best in terms of value for money and innovation," said the e-envoy's department. "We terminated our contract with BT a month ago."

Both Loudcloud and the e-envoy's department declined to put a value on the deal.

Loudcloud, which works with the Post Office, has also been hired to add bandwidth and services as ukonline.gov.uk grows. The company plans to use its Opsware automation technology to build its services, said Ian Ordish, Loudcloud's vice-president of European customer operations.

"From Loudcloud's perspective, we will be responsible for everything - from core network routers all the way to data server tiers. We know what hardware and software we plan to use," Ordish said. "In terms of the site itself, we are not responsible for the applications, and in that sense aren't making changes."

Ben Horowitz, Loudcloud's chief executive and president, added: "We are delighted to be working with the UK Government and the office of the e-envoy on what we consider a highly exciting and challenging initiative."

"Challenging" may prove to be the correct term. In February, Forrester Research claimed that only 13% of IT suppliers working with the Government were confident that it could reach its goal of getting all services online by 2005.

"The issue of data transfer from legacy systems to new systems remains a massive issue," said Weir. "There have been years of institutional chaos with different systems being bought from different providers by different government departments. Local authorities are still making their own IT decisions."

In September 2000, prime minister Tony Blair pledged £1bn for the Government's online efforts and has continually assured the public that it will be able to meet its self-imposed 2005 deadline.

"It's not going to happen," Weir said. "The deadline for local governments to turn in their blueprints for online services was only July - that's just not enough time."

However, Ordish said: "I can't speak about what has come before us. We are very confident that the project that Loudcloud is responsible for will be ready next year. We aren't responsible for making various parts of the Government's system work with each other - we're just working on the portal."

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