Mission Possible

When a new network server at Canada’s embassy in Cuba malfunctioned last year and our man in Havana couldn’t solve the problem, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) found itself in an interesting, if not entirely unfamiliar, fix.

The department’s otherwise very accommodating vendor, Dallas-based Compaq Computer Corp., certainly wasn’t going to send in the marines. It’s against the law for U.S. companies to do business in Cuba. So DFAIT had to dispatch one of its own agents — er, technicians. After disassembling the server, he discovered the problem: excessive humidity and salt air.

Welcome to the world of international diplomacy. Not many global IT operations are subject to these kinds of logistics nightmares, but they’re all in a day’s work for DFAIT. The department’s IT group manages 8,500 seats in 160 missions around the world, some in places where the availability of electric power is an iffy proposition, let alone broadband communications.

Yet DFAIT is nearing completion of a $46-million e-mail and network upgrade project that it will actually bring in ahead of time and slightly under budget. And this IT project management accomplishment is by no means the result of ramming a system down the throats of end users. “Feedback from our clients,” says DFAIT CIO David Ryan, “is universally over the moon.”

So how did DFAIT do it? What’s the secret? The department’s formula for success, according to Ryan, was a simple but effective one: choose the right vendor partners, select leading-edge but not bleeding-edge technology, insist on technology transfer from vendors, invest heavily in change management and training, pay rigorous attention to logistical issues, and integrate development with quality assurance.


The SIGNET 2000+ (Secure Integrated Global Network) project began in early 1998. By October 1, 1999, when SIGNET 2000+ is completed, the department will have overhauled its global wide-area data network, upgrading and consolidating servers, replacing workstations, upgrading the workstation operating system from Windows for Workgroups 3.11 to Windows NT 4.0, upgrading the office suite to Corel Office Suite 8 and, perhaps most importantly, replacing a Y2K-noncompliant e-mail system with Microsoft Outlook.

In the old network infrastructure, DFAIT maintained three types of installations. “Classic” missions with 20 or more staff had their own redundant servers. “Small” missions were tied back to hubs in Ottawa, Paris and Hong Kong. “Micro” missions with four or fewer staff were the first to move to NT 4.0 and connected to the nearest mission via a virtual private network (VPN) link provided by SITA (Soci