Armed Services Turn to Portals

Army, Air Force aim for widespread info delivery.

While the U.S. Military conducts the war on terrorism with bombs and bullets, branches of the armed forces are facing a challenge from within—how to deliver relevant information to their millions of members around the world more efficiently.

Their weapon of choice is portal software. Late last month, the U.S. Army relaunched its AKO (Army Knowledge Online) Internet portal, built on Art Technology Group Inc.s Dynamo software. The U.S. Air Force in January will begin to deploy its own portal initiative, using BroadVision Inc.s InfoExchange Portal 6.0.

Each of the portal initiatives will ultimately serve 1.2 million users.

The Army launched the second generation of its portal to push personalized information out to all Army personnel, including reservists, National Guardsmen and civilian employees, according to Col. Robert Coxe, chief technology officer for the Army at the Pentagon.

"Were changing from letting users move data around on screen to pushing data out to them," said Coxe, in Arlington, Va. "ATGs information dissemination engine was the best on the market."

The information that is pushed out to users is personalized to individuals based on their rank, division, location and duties.

"In a geographically dispersed organization, youve got to get the word out and do it without irritating the heck out of people," Coxe said.

Similarly, the Air Forces new BroadVision-based portal will be personalized to the individual users and present information that deals with mission support and front-line combat intelligence, as well as quality-of-life issues. It consolidates information from legacy databases and applications so that users can access it over the Web, officials said.

Providing personalized views of information with the tremendous number of users that these two branches of the armed services have is no easy task.

The Air Force portal will extend self-service to 1.2 million Air Force personnel and contractors.

The previous iteration of the Armys AKO portal served 140,000 users. Coxes group was given a mandate in early August to roll the service out to all Army personnel. The portal now has 670,000 users and will eventually have 1.2 million, Coxe said.

Both Boston-based ATG and BroadVision, of Redwood City, Calif., are well- respected for their capability to address the issue of mass personalization.

"If youre going to let everyone in your enterprise access it, youre going to need a high degree of personalization, giving personalized views even if its the same data. ATG and BroadVision are both known for providing strong personalization," said Chuck Luce, an analyst with The Delphi Group, in Boston.

"ATG is famous for personalization, and thats one of BroadVisions core competencies as well, so I would assume their approaches are similar enough to be complementary," Luce said.

Still, this huge increased scale presents perhaps the biggest challenge to Coxe and his team. They redesigned some of the Armys network and implemented more backup servers to handle the onslaught.

In addition to content, those services include access to logistics, personnel and operations applications, as well as instant messaging, e-mail and search.

Army personnel are already making use of the portal. Noncommissioned officers, for instance, can receive personalized information when they log on to AKO about what they have to do to receive a promotion, since the portal is tied in to Army personnel files.

Instant messaging, using Bantu Inc.s Bantu Messenger, is also proving to be a big hit among service personnel.

"Guards in the Balkans come off guard duty, log on and talk to their wives back home," Coxe said.

The AKO portal is not yet playing much of a role in the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan since the Army does not have a large presence there yet. "If we create a larger presence, Im certain [AKO] will be involved," Coxe said.

The portal will likely play an increasing role in homeland defense as well, as the need to share information and coordinate activities increases.

The portal can be accessed through the Internet and the Armys proprietary Secret IP Router Network, or SIPRNet. Security is handled by firewalls and rules set up in the system that determine which users can access which information.

In the future, the Army plans to create a document management system and give AKO users access to it.

"We want to give everyone the ability to put documents in the portal instead of attaching things to e-mails," Coxe said. "And not only post documents but index them and collaborate with other people on them, using IM or Web mail."

Coxe said the AKO portal will be able to share content with portals used by other branches of the armed services. In fact, some Air Force and U.S. Navy personnel are already using AKO, he said.

The four-year license agreement that the Air Force signed with BroadVision also includes a two-year interim agreement that can extend InfoExchange to the Army, Navy and Marines.

Coxe knows that the AKO portal is a huge undertaking but is confident it will come off without a hitch.

"Were bringing services to the whole Army, as opposed to just a vertical or horizontal slice. Its the entire enchilada," Coxe said.