TSP board backs budget hike for tech upgrade

The board overseeing the federal employee Thrift Savings Plan on Monday backed a 24 percent increase in the 401(k)-style program's budget for fiscal 2008, largely to support a massive modernization of systems for processing transactions.

Board members approved a budget of $108.4 million for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, marking an increase of $20.8 million over the $87.6 million approved for fiscal 2007. The TSP's budget has declined for the past three years even as assets have grown. But plan officials told board members that investments in new technology are necessary to ensure the program is secure and capable of weathering events ranging from a plunge in the market to a terrorist attack or natural disaster.

"This in my view represents a budget that makes sense," said TSP Executive Director Gregory Long. "It's prudent, and it represents the interests of participants."

Mark Hagerty, the plan's chief information officer, stressed that the current technology has performed well in terms of handling influxes of transactions and meeting trading deadlines. But he recommended that officials "skate ahead of the puck" by making upgrades before they become more urgent.

Reviews of the TSP's current technological capacities indicate that most of the plan's computing platforms are at or near the end of their life cycles, Hagerty said. Also, some systems are not adequately backed up, and certain inefficiencies need to be addressed, he said.

He proposed a solution that would take about two years and require about $15 million in capital investments. The plan would involve replacing mainframe computers with newer technology offering more memory and faster processors, consolidating and replacing servers, modernizing IT networks and improving storage capacity.

The upgrades will have such benefits as allowing the encryption of data "at rest" and enabling a mandatory switch to the next generation of the Internet, known as Internet Protocol version 6, Hagerty said. The modernization also is expected to help decrease the time needed to transfer operations should a system fail.

The bulk of the cost will be felt in fiscal 2008, Long said. But costs will not decrease as much as might be anticipated the next year because hardware and software maintenance fees will increase after the first year.

TSP officials projected that the plan's overall budget will go down slightly in fiscal 2009, falling by $1.3 million from fiscal 2008 to $107.1 million.

Other projects on tap for 2008 include a redesign of TSP's Web site. The changes should be complete within a year, Long said.

Plan officials already are implementing steps to make that site more secure. Participants will receive new account numbers by Oct. 1. Currently, the system uses Social Security numbers to identify accounts. The change has turned out to be labor intensive, with calls already coming in from concerned participants, plan officials said. Long said he expects continued pushback from some participants reluctant to have an extra number to learn. But he emphasized the necessity of the change.

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