[Beowulf] RE: MS Cray

Lux, James P james.p.lux at jpl.nasa.gov
Wed Sep 17 14:12:52 PDT 2008

> Translation: "bureaucracy is expensive".

You betcha.. Partly it's paranoia.. A lot of money goes into making sure that the taxpayer gets "the best deal".
On the other hand, that's not entirely paranoid.  Government procurements are a target rich environment for would be thieves.

> > the US government will not pay for interest on borrowed money.
> Don't tell the folks holding all of those US bonds!
> I'm pretty sure you meant that it will not allow its
> subsidiaries to borrow money separately.

More technically, a government agency can't pay interest, nor can a vendor charge for "cost of money" on a cost reimbursement contract. (On Fixed Price, you can do whatever you like, except pay bribes, etc.).  The ONLY way the government pays interest is those bonds. (I think..)

> to prevent
> > "hiding profits".
> Which leads to so much overhead that we end up with the $700
> hammer (for military work, which has even more of it), and at
> JPL, hardware prices much above what an individual would pay
> to purchase the same item on the open market.

Actually, I think we pay pretty much open market prices. If I "buy" a computer or peripheral, it comes from one of the big mail order places, or is at a price competitive with them, and the added "instutitional compliance costs" (which includes all the financial and acquisitions infrastructure.... I don't actually do the purchase order) is in the 10-15% range.  For small purchases (that hammer), we use a government credit card and pay the consumer cash price. (of course, those self same cards feature in spectacular news stories about people making the down payment on new cars, etc.... But that's just plain old fraud.. Same as happens in any company, but it does get more publicity)

> benefit of a volume discount).  There should be a happy
> medium between using regulations to squeeze out waste/fraud,
> and drowning in red tape.  To me this program seems rather
> closer to the latter than the former.

It's definitely a pendulum that swings back and forth.

> >  And, while most JPL technical staff are certainly capable of doing
> > their own support, there's good reason for them not to
> Agreed.  However, there is a simple way to enforce that, deny
> end users admin access to JPL supplied PCs.  (Well, it might
> not so simple to keep the technically adept out of their machines. )

And, it would probably cause a riot (however, I will say that the "subscribed desktop user" is having less and less control over what's going on in their computer over time, admin privileges notwithstanding..)

> Point 1, I believe you that support isn't spending much time
> fixing hardware, which is why I think this contract is too
> expensive.  Point 2, if the core software (presumably mostly
> web based at this juncture) is so problematic, it would
> suggest that that is the place to go for cost savings.

Core software is actually not web based.  It's regular old MS Office, Meeting Maker, email clients (choose among Eudora, Outlook, Outlook Express, Thunderbird, and gosh, probably a dozen others), web browsers (IE,Netscape,Firefox are the leaders, but there's others), all with a variety of versions and update cycles.  Then you've got Acrobat (several flavors), drawing tools (Visio, Autocad, etc.), project management (MS Project, Primavera), budgeting tools (mostly very complex excel spreadshets with pages and pages of code behind them).  Then, there's various document repositories (DocuShare,Sherpa, etc.)

No question that a goodly fraction of support cost goes there. (On a positive note, the new CIO is pushing towards an enterprise architecture, which, in the long run, will reduce costs, if only because you won't have multiple parallel data sources that aren't always synced)

> > Let us not forget IT security. This is a non-trivial matter when you
> have to manage tens of thousands of desktops and comply with
> dozens of pages of government regulation, NASA procedural
> instructions, etc.
> >
> > The upshot is, you get a fair amount for your $130/month support
> subscription.  To put that in context, that's less than two
> hours of engineer time.
> So $4680 for three years for purchase and support of what
> type of machine exactly? Does the XXX/month include the
> support of the centralized business software, or just the end
> user's machine?

That supports everything, including all the applications software. It covers all skill levels of users, too. It also covers user support for institutional applications (e.g. if you have a problem getting the timecard up in the browser..)

It was my impression that it was the latter,
> which is why I thought this manner of supplying computers to
> be overly expensive.

No the hardware cost is separate.. And competitively bid. Ranges from $20/month for a low end thin client to $200/month for a top-o-the-line workstation from Dell or HP, etc.

  Surely network support is covered in
> some sort of overhead and isn't allocated on a machine by
> machine basis.

Allocated on a machine by machine basis, because it has to be allocable to a specific project and task.  The $130/mo doesn't cover "infrastructure" (e.g. fiber in the streets, router down the hall, etc.).. Those costs are also allocated piecemeal. (e.g. the phone on my desk, etc.)

> > For what it's worth, we have a similar sort of scenario
> when dealing
> > with test equipment. Do you own it, and have in house
> inventory, (with
> > all the peculiar government contract stuff about cost
> accounting), or
> > do you have an outside vendor provide it on lease/rent.
> That's a tough one.  I would assume that things like
> oscilloscopes and voltmeters would be owned and kept in a
> pool for checkout.  These have a long service life and aren't
> all that expensive.

But they need calibration every 6 months or a year, and while "functional" for decades, at some point, it's not worth servicing. There's also an intangible cost to making your engineers use clunky old gear (i.e. they're a lot more productive with a new Vector Network Analyzer than an old one, and orders of magnitude more productive than using a slotted line and a diode probe.)

For specialized and expensive equipment,
> it is too complex to generalize, even before the government
> purchase rules are thrown into the mix.  These sorts of tools
> often need expensive service contracts if purchased (to cover
> the replacement of failed parts which are not generally
> available), and it often comes down to 6 of one and half
> dozen of the other if buy or lease is most cost effective.

And the test equipment market IS competitive.. If vendor A thinks they can rent you the scope for $200 and Vendor B rents it for $240, Vendor A will get the job.  The rental company cost structure isn't all that much different from the would be purchaser's, because you're all buying from the same vendor (e.g. Agilent).


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