FBI's New Sentinel System: Exclusive Look - InformationWeek

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Government // Leadership
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John Foley
John Foley
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FBI's New Sentinel System: Exclusive Look

Our first look at the FBI's $451 million case management system reveals a user interface and features with the look and feel of a PC application.

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Six years and $450 million into the project, the FBI's Sentinel case management system appears to be almost ready for deployment. Sentinel aims to replace a hodgepodge of digital and paper processes with purely digital workflows, helping FBI agents collaborate and "connect the dots" on investigations. The question now is how well the problem-plagued system will live up to those expectations.

FBI CIO Chad Fulgham demonstrated Sentinel for InformationWeek on March 28, the first time the agency has shown its new case management system to an outsider. Fulgham, who announced this week that he's leaving the bureau on April 13 to return to the private sector, described Sentinel as leap-ahead technology compared with the 17-year-old Automated Case Support (ACS) system it's about to replace.

"This isn't just a case management system. It's a great platform to grow on," Fulgham said during the demo at FBI headquarters. The agency's IT team plans to move other apps over to Sentinel, giving them a similar look and feel on the same underlying hardware.

The FBI awarded the original contract for the case management system to Lockheed Martin in 2006, but an impatient Fulgham, who was hired in 2008 to get the project on track, decided to bring it in house in September 2010. Since then, the agency has been using agile development to push the frequently delayed project across the finish line. The FBI's agile team creates a software build every two weeks, and the pre-launch system is now running Build 33. The agency is working on Build 36, comprised mainly of features that weren't part of the original RFP. Fulgham says the software is essentially done.

The FBI recently tested the system with 300 agents, who were brought in to its offices in Atlanta, Denver, and Newark, N.J., for a crash course, which included creating case files in a mock scenario. On a scale from 1 to 10, the users rated the system an 8.5, Fulgham said, which he considers a high mark from a hard-to-please user base.

To get to this point, the agency was forced to upgrade Sentinel's computer hardware. In a test last fall, the system bogged down and crashed, the result of inadequate processing power. So the FBI bought three powerful Oracle Exadata appliances--one for production, another for backup, and a third for development and testing. In a 5,000-user stress test of the system, Sentinel consumed only one tenth of 1% of its processing capacity, Fulgham said. Going forward, performance won't be an issue, he said.

Sentinel Demo

How does Sentinel work? I watched as Fulgham signed on from his desk. The user dashboard loosely resembles Microsoft Outlook, with a similar color scheme, navigation panel on the left, and drop-down folders and menus. The dashboard includes a "My Work" area, where agents can pull up case files and create new ones.

The case file template includes a variety of required fields, and a green check mark designates those that have been completed. If the user tries to advance to the next step without completing all fields, a red asterisk flags the missing information.

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