Outdated Infrastructure

By Larry Barrett  |  Posted 2003-09-10 Print this article Print

When John arrived on the scene in July 2002, he inherited an information technology infrastructure that was "at least five or six years" behind most of corporate America. Worse, previous administrations had allowed various regions to establish and install their own information systems. Revamping the FBIs information systems was a vast change from Johns previous position, which required him to transform the Mormon Church into a global organization by building a comprehensive Web portal, installing videoconferencing and developing applications used to manage a database covering centuries of genealogical data.

Many FBI special agents were still using outdated computers running on Intel 386 and 486 processors loaded with dozens of disparate software applications—some of which were 10 to 15 years old. There was virtually no way for agents to simultaneously access the dozens of databases they used every day to track criminals. The FBI had to start from scratch if it were to effectively collect, analyze and share the information needed to catch would-be terrorists.

"It was a crisis situation," John says. "We had agents in some field offices who were using high-speed laptops with broadband Internet access and others across town who were still crawling along on 386s with dial-up access and, sometimes, no access to the Internet. To even begin starting to attack terrorism, we needed the basic blocking and tackling equipment."

The massive infrastructure overhaul, Trilogy, included the purchase of 21,000 Dell desktop computers running the Windows XP operating system. More than 3,000 printers and 1,500 scanners were acquired so field agents could exchange photographs, fingerprints and other visual data that were usually faxed, mailed or simply not accessed by agents working in other cities.

The project, which completed its first phase in March, will ultimately connect all 622 FBI field offices to each other via Ethernet networks. That could take another year, insiders say.

At the FBI, basic communication tools were neglected: the agency didnt have a unified e-mail system until Trilogy began, John says. Even after the project is completed, agents still wont have a secure e-mail system.

Analysts question the move. "That would be a first and very simple step for the FBI and other agencies to take," says Gartner Inc. analyst John Pescatore. "Just give these guys the ability to securely share information and I bet everyone will be surprised to see just how much cooperation can take place in very small but meaningful ways."

In December, the Justice Departments inspector general issued a scathing review of the Trilogy implementation, saying that "mismanagement of I.T. projects" had resulted in the "waste of millions of dollars on projects and missed deadlines for implementing crucial upgrades" to the FBIs information systems.

The inspector general also panned Trilogys progress. "We found that the lack of I.T. investment-management processes contributed to missed milestones and led to uncertainties about cost, schedule and technical goals."

The inspector general derided the FBI, for instance, for dropping a plan to put low-cost terminals in FBI offices. By relying on central servers to actually compute results, the FBI would have saved on hardware and software updating costs, the inspector said. The FBI argues such an approach cant meet the technical requirements of the bureau primarily because of security concerns.

Lowery has told the General Accounting Office that the FBI is in the process of addressing the 30 different recommendations made by the inspector generals report to improve the way the bureau plans, budgets and executes future information systems implementations. Among other things, the inspector general asked the FBI to create a financial system to manage and allocate information technology resources for counterterrorism activities, and to assign a single individual who would be accountable for managing the assessment of projects to completion.

Next page: High stakes for information gathering.

Senior Writer
Larry, of San Carlos, Calif., was a senior writer and editor at CNet, writing analysis, breaking news and opinion stories. He was technology reporter at the San Jose Business Journal from 1996-1997. He graduated with a B.A. from San Jose State University where he was also executive editor of the daily student newspaper.

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