National Cancer Institute pursues managed services for printing, cellphone needs

Federal agencies are turning to managed services for their information technology and help desk needs, due to the potential for greater flexibility and cost predictability. One such agency is the National Cancer Institute and its Center for Biomedical Informatics & Information Technology.

According to the office, acting CIO Jeff Shilling oversees operations including server and endpoint hardware, commercial-off-the-shelf software, and desktop support. His team’s first attempt at managed services will be a printing pilot for NCI.

The idea is to simplify printing for people because one company will be responsible for providing and maintaining all machines. Shilling also said he wants to make employees always have printer access no matter what building or machine they use, and to get printing costs down, especially since the federal acquisition process is complex.

 “We want it to work more often,” he said on said on Federal Insights: Managed Services. “Right now [people are] tied to very specific printers and when those printers are not functional they can’t print.”

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The pilot will last for about a year and involve several different vendors, after which Shilling said his office would conduct a large assessment of the findings before crafting a request for proposals. He said his office chose to conduct the pilot first because managed services are new territory.

“It’s a new world for us in IT,” he said on Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “We don’t know how to tell someone what we want. We have a process that we figured out ourselves and in this case we’re going to figure it out ourselves with several vendors.”

Shilling leads NCI’s Information Technology Operations Branch, which manages IT for the main Bethesda, Maryland, campus and the Fort Detrick campus in Frederick, Maryland. To some extent, NCI shares an IT infrastructure with the National Institutes of Health, including its base network and the Biowulf cluster computing system.

But NCI has its own specific network services, storage for administrative purposes, scientific data, standard help desk services and desktop computer rollouts. Managed services can help the organization by filling the gaps in expertise that a general IT supplier, such as Shilling’s office, cannot.

“We don’t have anybody who knows a lot about printing,” he said. “Sure we can print, but again, what we know about printing is kind of small office, home office. We don’t know enterprise printing.”

After printing, NCI’s next venture into managed services will be cellphones, which Shilling said is already highly commoditized.

“These cell managed services are heavily integrated into the [carriers] much more than we could possibly be,” he said. “So they’re able to do things, get bills, get minutes, manage these sometimes spurious roaming charges that’ll happen. They’re just able to optimize the service.”

Shilling said it supports NCI’s overall goal of shifting IT services from managing the technology to optimizing how staff work with it.

As for using managed services to provide central help desk needs, Shilling said his office is likely not mature enough to know what their needs are. NCI’s work and research are too specialized and different from traditional healthcare.

“How many people are doing clinical trials in oncology?” he said. “It’s not something that these services can just bring in staff that do that. ‘Oh yeah, I worked with these companies before.’ No, not really.”

It will take time to build up a knowledge base for a 24/7 call and chat solution. It will also require getting NCI staff comfortable with a new service that could be disruptive for a time.

“People have trusted IT people they work with and once we get those trusted IT people to believe in these changes, then it seems to go over pretty well,” Shilling said.