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FBI Prepares For Phase One Of Controversial Sentinel Program

A critical design review next month will determine whether the FBI will move forward with the program.

The first big test of the FBI's latest effort to create a more cohesive data-sharing infrastructure comes next month, when the bureau will formally scrutinize plans for its highly anticipated Sentinel project and the project's lead contractor, Lockheed Martin. After that review, the FBI will decide whether Lockheed will move ahead with the more than $400 million application modernization project.

No worries for Azmi

No worries for Azmi

Photo by David Deal
This is a make-or-break moment for CIO Zalmai Azmi. The FBI's last major application upgrade, the $170 million Virtual Case File system, was a highly publicized failure. So Congress, the Justice Department, and the public are watching Sentinel closely. "I'm looking for my engineers to come back to me to tell me the design of the project is sound," says Azmi, who has 75 people, including FBI staff and contractors, working on the project. "I'm not worried about this, but I am anxious to move into the building phase. Sentinel is a political hot potato, so it gets a lot of attention."

Sentinel will be a "force multiplier" because it will give FBI agents access to information that's "pocketed away in different systems throughout the bureau," says Mike Gibbons, former chief of FBI cybercrime investigations and currently Unisys VP for enterprise security services. "The FBI does a great job of collecting information, but sharing it has been the real challenge."

Phase one of Sentinel, due to be completed in April, will involve building a Web portal to the bureau's legacy systems and setting up the service-oriented architecture that will provide the framework for the project's next three phases. The portal will let FBI agents, analysts, and other personnel see information in a legacy case-support system and, later, data in a new case-management system.

No Guarantees

Phase two includes the migration of the FBI's electronic case files to a new database starting in January and the introduction of a workflow tool to support the movement of those files through the review and approval process. A security framework will provide access controls and electronic signatures. Phase two will flow into subsequent phases of Sentinel, which will include a universal index with a database of people, places, and evidence.

Lockheed in March was named the lead contractor in the deal that could be worth as much as $305 million over the next six years. But there's no guaranteed money for the contractors. If Azmi and his team aren't satisfied with design results, "there's no phase two for Lockheed Martin," he says. If Lockheed gets a green light, it will start building the system with mostly off-the-shelf technology; Azmi wants phase one testing to begin by year's end.

The FBI and Azmi, the former CIO for the Executive Office for United States Attorneys who was named acting CIO for the FBI in 2003, hope to avoid many of the mistakes made during earlier efforts to update the bureau's technology. The FBI had a tendency in the past to develop its IT strategy at headquarters and then push it out to its field offices, without much input from those who use the technology, Gibbons says. "You have to team programmers with the people who understand the business process," he says. "Any corporation that's trying to push out new processes to satellite offices will fail without input from the business-unit level."

The FBI's IT challenges are no different than those faced by many businesses looking to replace legacy technology and outdated processes. Says Gibbons: "If you're due for a large refresh, this is what you're going to face."

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