The FBI plans a critical design review in October of contractor Lockheed Martin's $400 million plans for integrating investigation data. The agency's previous attempt, a similar project called Virtual Case File, was a $170 million fiasco.

Larry Greenemeier, Contributor

August 31, 2006

6 Min Read

The FBI's next crack at creating a more cohesive data-sharing application infrastructure will soon get its first big test. The bureau's IT executives will soon begin to formally scrutinize both the plans for its highly anticipated Sentinel project and the project's lead contractor, Lockheed Martin.

After October's critical design review, the FBI will know everything it needs to about Lockheed's progress on the first phase of the project, valued at more than $400 million, to modernize the bureau's applications.

Given the highly publicized failure of the FBI's last major application upgrade, the $170 million Virtual Case File system, and the overwhelming amount of oversight Sentinel is getting from Congress, the Justice Department, and the public, this is a make-or-break moment for CIO Zalmai Azmi.

"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, managing Sentinel. "I'm not worried about this, but I am anxious to get critical design review done and move into the building phase. Sentinel is a political hot potato, so it gets a lot of attention."

Sentinel will be a "force multiplier for the FBI due to its ability to give special agents access to information that's pocketed away in different systems throughout the bureau," says Mike Gibbons, a former chief of FBI cyber crime 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 in April 2007, will be a Web portal to the bureau's legacy systems. The portal will set up the services-oriented architecture that will follow in the project's next three phases. This portal will let FBI agents, analysts, and other personnel access a soon-to-be-replaced automated case-support system and, later, access data in a new case-management system. It will also include a case-management "workbox" that will summarize a user's workload.

Lockheed in March won the lead contractor role on Sentinel, a deal that could be worth up to $305 million over the next six years. But the FBI has learned its lesson from the botched contractor relationship with Science Applications International Corp. That relationship suffered from a disconnect between system developers and end users, as well as FBI IT management turnover.

During the Virtual Case File project, there's no guaranteed money for Sentinel's contractors, Azmi says. If Azmi and his team aren't satisfied with the critical design review for phase one, "there is no phase two for Lockheed Martin." Azmi wants testing of phase one to begin by the end of the year.

Phase one will also provide FBI users with a link to the bureau's Investigative Data Warehouse, which provides analysts and agents with access to 54 different data sources, many within the FBI but others within federal agencies such as Homeland Security. The data warehouse contains 668 million records and gives agents and analysts the ability to have alerts sent to their computers or mobile devices when new information is added on a particular subject. "If you search a database for 'Bin Laden,' then every morning after the system refreshes itself, you'll get an alert if a new piece of information shows up on that subject," Azmi says. The warehouse is the "workhorse for our intelligence analysts looking to connect the dots."

The FBI's IT staff is also beginning the arduous task of "cleansing" data so that it fits into a consistent format that can be used across the bureau's various IT systems as part of its SOA strategy. Phase two, scheduled to start in January, will involve the migration of the FBI's electronic case files to a new database and the introduction of a workflow tool to support the movement of electronic case files through the review and approval process. A security framework will provide access controls and electronic signatures.

Subsequent phases of Sentinel are expected to deliver a universal index, which is a database of people, places, or things that relate to a particular case.

Accenture will work under Lockheed Martin as part of the Sentinel project to provide organizational change management, working with field offices to adopt new techniques and ways of doing business introduced by Sentinel. Computer Sciences Corp. is responsible for the security components delivered within Sentinel as well as the LAN and WAN, while IBM is lending its hardware and software expertise to the project. The FBI already uses Oracle databases and a lot of Microsoft software, so these two product lines will likely make the cut into Sentinel.

Businesses can learn several lessons from the change-management challenges the FBI has faced as technology has evolved. The FBI has had a tendency in the past to develop its technology strategy at headquarters and then push that technology out to its field offices, without much input from field managers or the agents and analysts who will use the technology, says Gibbons, who spent 15 years in the FBI as a special agent and cyber crime investigator. "You have to team programmers with the people who understand the business process," he adds. "Any corporation that's trying to push out new processes to satellite offices will fail without input from the business-unit level."

Despite the importance of Sentinel, the project is only part of the bureau's efforts to modernize its use of IT. In fact, Azmi says that Sentinel represents only about 10% of the projects he oversees.

The FBI is also looking to improve its ability to communicate with state and local law enforcement. The bureau is in the process of evaluating vendors for the creation of a national data exchange program that will run alongside regional data exchanges already in existence, including those in St. Louis and Seattle, which connect law enforcement in a particular area with each other. Sentinel will automate the process of sending federal data from organizations such as the Bureau of Prisons, Drug Enforcement Agency, FBI, and U.S. Marshals to the regional exchanges.

A major challenge for Azmi and his organization is the requirement that they budget two years ahead for an organization that changing so rapidly, particularly since 9/11 created a greater emphasis to combat terrorism as well as investigate more conventional crimes. Departments in the federal government are required to submit a budget every two years. "We are developing a transition plan for what we'll do in 2007 and 2008. But keep in mind these are just plans," he says. "You have to be flexible if budget and timing change along the way."

Any business that's operating with technology that's more than a decade old should be watching the FBI's IT renovation efforts with great interest, Gibbons says. "If you are due for a large refresh, this is what you're going to face."

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