Snafus Cause FBI To Try Packaged Software

Planned information-management system will take four years to deploy

Larry Greenemeier, Contributor

May 27, 2005

3 Min Read

Since 9/11, the FBI has turned to technologywith varying degrees of success to help it become a more valuable member of the intelligence community while at the same time meet its core law-enforcement responsibilities. To that end, FBI Director Robert Mueller last week formally introduced Sentinel, an information-management system that he hopes will help the bureau leverage newer, standardized IT software in lieu of outdated systems.

"Sentinel will raise our business practices to a higher level of performance by providing enhanced capabilities, new services, and better efficiency," Mueller told the Senate Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science. "Sentinel will further encourage information sharing within the FBI and among our counterparts."

The Sentinel system will aid data sharing both within the FBI and with other agencies, Mueller says.

The FBI plans to roll Sentinel out in four phases beginning late this year, with full development and implementation taking three to four years. As the FBI develops each phase, it will replace corresponding legacy systems, the most significant being its Automated Case Management System. Other applications to be retired include the bureau's Criminal Informant Management System, Bank Robbery Statistical Application, and Financial Institution Fraud and Integrated Statistical Reporting Analysis Application. Sentinel supports XML standards, which should help facilitate internal and external information sharing.

Sentinel will use mostly off-the-shelf software and take the place of the FBI's ill-fated Virtual Case File app, a heavily customized case-management system that didn't meet the bureau's expectations. The FBI indicated in March that the application's development wasn't keeping up with the bureau's changing needs and said it would never go live.

Virtual Case File tests yielded valuable insights that would help the bureau avoid the same mistakes again, Mueller testified. "Successful deployment of Sentinel remains one of my top priorities," he said.

Since inheriting a technology-poor organization when he took the reins in September 2001, Mueller spearheaded a project called Trilogy to upgrade the FBI's IT infrastructure and network. The first two parts of Trilogy, completed in April 2004, provide a high-speed, secure network that lets FBI personnel worldwide share data, including audio, video, and image files. The third piece of Trilogy was to be Virtual Case File, conceived as a way to give agents and analysts Web-based access to case information at a cost of $170 million. Mueller didn't provide a cost estimate for Sentinel.

By midsummer, the bureau expects to issue a request for proposals for Sentinel, 80% to 90% of which will be comprised of off-the-shelf software, FBI CIO Zalmai Azmi says. By contrast, Virtual Case File was heavily customized, a reflection of the bureau's build-first culture and a lack of available packaged software to meet its needs. Although the FBI hasn't said when it will award a contract, Azmi says the first of Sentinel's four phases should be completed a year after the contract is signed.

Virtual Case File's problems will have a lasting impact on how the FBI interacts with vendors. "We're looking to develop those partnerships that we lacked previously," Azmi says. "We realize that we have to have a very close partnership relationship and coordination activity with the private sector because the private sector is the developer of the latest and greatest information technology."

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