FBI's Beleaguered Sentinel Project Delayed Again

Bureau's next generation case-management system suffers another setback, as performance issues arise in testing and push deployment out to May.

John Foley, Editor, InformationWeek

January 4, 2012

5 Min Read

Federal Data Center Consolidation Makes Progres

Federal Data Center Consolidation Makes Progress

Federal Data Center Consolidation Makes Progress (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

An FBI project to develop a digital case-management system to replace outdated, paper-based processes has been delayed again, despite the agency's decision to use agile development to hasten its completion. The system, called Sentinel, is now due to be deployed in May, eight months later than the FBI planned when it embarked on the agile development strategy.

It's the latest in a series of delays to build a replacement for the FBI's 17-year-old Automated Case Support system, used by agents and analysts to manage documents and other information related to their cases. In 2006, the FBI awarded Lockheed Martin a $305 million contract to lead development of Sentinel, but it took back control of the project in September 2010 amid delays and cost overruns. At the time, the FBI said it would finish Sentinel within 12 months using agile development.

But that worked slipped (the FBI had earlier pushed Sentinel's deployment from September 2011 to January 2012), and a four-hour test of the system in October resulted in two outages, according to an Inspector General report released in December. The FBI attributed the glitches to overburdened legacy computer hardware and said the hardware will need to be upgraded to support Sentinel's use across the agency, according to the IG.

[ The FBI plans to upgrade its technical capabilities in other areas also. Read FBI To Get More Cyber Crime Agents. ]

The agile development approach is a big bet for FBI CIO Chad Fulgham and CTO Jeff Johnson, former IT executives with brokerage firm Lehman Bros., who inherited the project when they joined the agency in 2008 and 2009, respectively, and determined that a new strategy was needed to get the high-profile project across the finish line. At the time that Fulgham announced that Lockheed Martin would have a diminished role, his goal was to complete the project by September 2011 and with the funding that had already been appropriated, $451 million. Congress has kept a wary eye on Sentinel, which is now more than two years past its original due date.

While Sentinel's completion has slipped again, the project remains within budget. However, the IG expressed doubt regarding the FBI's ability to hit its new deployment date and stay on budget. "Because of the uncertainties associated with the hardware procurement and the cost associated with the additional delay in Sentinel's development and procurement, we remain concerned about the FBI's abilities to remain within its budget," the IG stated.

Speaking at InformationWeek's Government IT Leadership Forum last May, Fulgham and Johnson explained the FBI's rationale for switching from "waterfall" development, where project requirements are laid out early and delivered over many months, to agile methodology, where capabilities are developed in two-week sprints. The FBI's new approach involved co-locating application developers and testers, generating frequent releases, producing only what's needed, and continuously integrating software, systems, and business processes.

The FBI set aside $32.6 million of Sentinel's budget for agile development, and by December it had spent half of that amount, according to the IG. The FBI's latest timeline calls for Sentinel development to be completed next month, followed by 12 weeks of testing and agency-wide deployment in May.

In October, the FBI tested Sentinel on the same infrastructure it will use to host the system and deliver its capabilities to the agency's headquarters and branch offices. The test involved 743 users running case-management tasks through 13 scenarios. The system encountered "significant performance problems" during the test, and the FBI will have to "significantly expand the infrastructure" to support a broad rollout, according to the IG.

The IG deemed the test "an important step," but expressed concern that the shoddy performance would discourage user acceptance. The FBI awaits a proposal from Lockheed Martin on what it will cost to upgrade the computer hardware.

The IG deemed it "too early to judge" whether the FBI is on track to hit Sentinel's latest project completion goal, and it questioned whether the agency would have money left in the Sentinel budget to operate and maintain the system once it's implemented. It recommended that the agency update its lifecycle management policies for agile development and conduct further testing to ensure that system performance is acceptable over the FBI's network.

When the FBI transitioned to agile development, the number of Lockheed Martin employees involved in the project was curtailed from 135 to 10. The FBI's contract with the defense company is due to expire in May. Last year, the FBI added a one-year option, valued at $4.5 million, to cover development work through October.

In a Dec. 19 letter to the IG responding to its draft report, Fulgham characterized the slip in Sentinel's schedule as a "modest extension." As of early December, 88% of Sentinel's required functionality had been completed, he said.

According to our Outlook 2012 Survey, IT should expect soaring demand but cautious hiring as companies use technology to try to get closer to customers. Also in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek: Inside Windows Server 8. (Free registration required.)

About the Author(s)

John Foley

Editor, InformationWeek

John Foley is director, strategic communications, for Oracle Corp. and a former editor of InformationWeek Government.

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