Senate E-mail Upgrade Nearing Completion

Posted March 18, 2003 at 4:43pm

The Senate’s long-awaited upgrade of its e-mail system — a process that began five years ago — is set to be complete as soon as this summer, according to the Sergeant-at-Arms’ office.

Acknowledging the setbacks and complications that have plagued the project since the onset, outgoing Sergeant-at-Arms Alfonso Lenhardt said in an exit interview last week that he expects all Member and committee offices to be upgraded before the end of the year. Bill Pickle replaced Lenhardt as Sergeant-at-Arms on Monday.

As it stands, about 80 percent of all Senate offices now have new Microsoft Exchange and Outlook software, which replaces the 13-year old Lotus cc:Mail program. IBM stopped supporting the software a few years ago, making it difficult for Senate offices to maintain.

“This project started back in 1998,” Lenhardt said. “We’ve had some challenges.”

In January, staffers briefly complained that e-mails from outside the Senate system were delayed anywhere from 15 minutes to 24 hours. That episode provided the most severe example of the system’s struggles, but Senate offices have been experiencing sporadic e-mail delays, many lasting hours, for months.

The outdated system caused at least one attention-grabbing mishap last summer after Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (D-Conn.) office sent out a press release to more than 500 reporters. The existing system couldn’t handle the volume, resulting in recipients getting the message dozens of times. In an unfortunate coincidence for Lieberman, the e-mail was about broadband policy.

At the time, Lenhardt apologized for the incident and said he expected to have the system converted by the end of the 107th Congress.

But the problems pre-date Lenhardt’s tenure. The previous Sergeant-at-Arms, James Ziglar, testified before the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch in May 2001 that “this technology upgrade needs to be completed as soon as possible.” And systems administrators have been told as far back as 1999 that the upgrade was just around the corner.

The biggest difficulty has been accommodating the nature of the Senate itself, Lenhardt indicated. The challenges are not shared by the House, which has a centralized system (the reason House e-mail suffixes are all mail.house.gov, while suffixes in the Senate differ by the employing office).

“The Senate wants to maintain — and each office wants to maintain — an autonomous system whereby the confidentiality is maintained as well as the control of the information by each office,” Lenhardt said, explaining that e-mail software wasn’t designed to accommodate multiple autonomous systems within a larger network.

“We are working with Hewlett Packard, as well as the Microsoft Corp., to ensure that they can respond to the needs of the Senate,” he said. HP is the chamber’s service contractor for the project.

“Basically, each office has its own ability to secure its information. That has produced some challenges, challenges that were not fully understood four years ago. That’s the issue,” he said.

“The [Microsoft] program wasn’t designed to do many of the things we want it to do. We’re pushing the technology,” he said. “I think, in many ways, it’s incumbent upon us to push technology. We’re always seeming to be responding to technology. Well, let’s get ahead of it. Let’s say these are our requirements, now see what you can do as opposed to running to keep up.

“We’re working closely with the office managers and the systems administrators in the Senate to do this, to do it in such a fashion that we’re all going to be proud,” he added.

The transition started in earnest last summer with offices receiving the new program. About 28 offices (including committees and personal offices) are left to be converted.