DOE questions PNNL call system spending

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldJuly 7, 2014 

PNNL Sign Richland

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland.

PHOTO COURTESY PNNL

Taxpayer money might have been saved if Pacific Northwest National Laboratory used Hanford's new Internet-based system when it replaced its traditional phone system, according to a new audit report.

However, PNNL disagrees with the report prepared by the Department of Energy's Office of Inspector General. Using Hanford's Internet network for phone calls was not feasible because the Hanford system was not large enough and because of potential cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

The DOE audit concluded that $56 million spent across the nationwide DOE complex to implement Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, networks could have been reduced if there were more coordination between programs and sites. It cited PNNL in Richland and the Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee as possible examples.

"We acknowledge that upgrading to a VoIP solution is likely to improve the department's telecommunications infrastructure," the audit report said. "However, the path the department is on is not fiscally sustainable or efficient."

Hanford officials invited PNNL to join with the nuclear reservation when Hanford was planning its VoIP system several years ago, according to the report. However, PNNL declined.

Hanford put in 22,000 lines of service, which would have provided capacity for PNNL, according to the report. However, Mission Support Alliance, the Hanford support services contractor, said that number was incorrect, and it has 13,000 lines, which is just slightly above Hanford's needs.

PNNL is in the process of installing a VoIP system that will bring its capacity to about 7,000 lines, the report said. The cost of the Hanford system was just under $7 million and the PNNL system could cost about $2.8 million.

PNNL still would have had to purchase licenses, servers and handsets as well as establish network infrastructure and interconnections if Hanford had the capacity to allow PNNL to also use the system, said PNNL spokesman Greg Koller.

PNNL was concerned that a consolidation of PNNL and Hanford's independent networks would have created cybersecurity vulnerabilities for both parties, Koller said. PNNL was the target of a sophisticated cyberattack in 2011 that exploited a similar issue of linked networks. The breach took more than a week to recover from and the affected networks in that attack have since been separated.

The report raised concerns about how PNNL implemented its VoIP, which was started by adding a limited system of about 1,200 lines at a cost of about $1 million. An analysis at the time recommended that PNNL continue with its old system to give the VoIP technology and markets time to mature.

PNNL said it did evaluate options and alternatives and hired an independent consulting firm to review the best technical alternatives available. That was followed by a competitive procurement, Koller said. PNNL needed service for new laboratories built to replace buildings that were being torn down in the Hanford 300 Area.

The project used the best technology available at the time and "was a cost-effective solution for providing voice services to these facilities," Koller said. "There is no need or plan to replace the equipment or recover the cost."

PNNL has since started work to add about 6,000 additional lines at a cost of $1.8 million.

The Office of Inspector General report also looked at general security controls of VoIP networks across the DOE system and found some weaknesses, including in the PNNL system.

Ongoing security assessments had not been conducted at PNNL in the way outlined in procedures, the audit found.

However, the design of the system helped prevent cybersecurity issues, Koller said. A separate network was established by PNNL for its VoIP system to isolate it from vulnerabilities in the general computer network.

"Tight controls were implemented to restrict communication and access to this network," Koller said.

Despite problems found nationwide in VoIP implementation, the systems are saving money, the Office of Inspector General report said.

Cost savings have not been calculated for PNNL, but the VoIP network at Hanford is saving about $2 million a year in reduced power, maintenance and labor costs, the report said.

-- Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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