Government: Unlocking data, locking down access

The U.S. federal government is often seen as a laggard in IT, a bloated bureaucracy that runs well behind the innovations of private industry. But look closely and you'll find programs that are truly groundbreaking.

Take the AKO (Army Knowledge Online) portal and messaging platform. It began life in the 1990s as a way for the Army's top brass to swap notes and chat with one another online. It's now one of the world's bigger intranets and is set to spearhead the entire U.S. military's move to network-centric operations.

And then there's HSPD-12 (Homeland Security Presidential Directive-12). That's the tongue-twisting moniker for an effort to establish a single, governmentwide security pass that will give holders access to any government building or computer, and it's something many believe could finally shake hidebound agencies loose of their stovepiped past.

The U.S. Army's ever-expanding portal

The AKO had just 97,000 users in October 2000, a year after it went live, but usage ballooned after Sept. 11, 2001, and the start of conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are now more than 1.8 million account holders. On March 17 this year, a new record was established with nearly 755,000 log-ins in one day.

One major problem in establishing the AKO was accessing the data contained in the large number of legacy systems the Army had built around the world. Physically replacing or otherwise integrating those systems using middleware would have been prohibitively expensive, so the Army instead opted for a single data warehouse using Oracle.

For redundancy, the Army eventually built a second datacenter. But instead of making it a costly fail-over asset that would sit unused until a failure occurred at the primary center, it uses automation software so both centers can collaborate in configuring and coordinating the growing AKO infrastructure.

Any account holder can access AKO from any computer and use the built-in services, such as e-mail and IM. That's proved a boon to morale and soldiers' readiness, according to Gregory Fritz, AKO deputy director.

"Many Army organizations have information for and from their family readiness groups on AKO," Fritz says. "That allows the unit to share information with their families and allows families to stay in contact with other families within the organization."

It has also allowed "communities of interest" to exchange information and lessons learned, which has proved invaluable for those soldiers either already deployed or who are preparing to deploy so they can better understand the issues they are facing, Fritz says.

And it's added an edge to the Army's vaunted organizational capability, which (believe it or not) showed itself during last year's Hurricane Katrina emergency.

The day after the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast, Army CIO Lt. Gen. Steven Boutelle ordered an online assistance center. Three hours later, a Katrina information center opened on AKO, providing a virtual community center where Army, Reserve, and National Guard members and their families could contact one another and find financial and housing assistance.

The military has big plans for AKO. Last year Boutelle and Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Croom, director of the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), decided to expand the AKO into DKO (Defense Knowledge Online) to include all of the services and Defense Department agencies.

The goal is a single portal for all of the military who will use an SOA to deliver the AKO services that have already proven themselves, as well as newer collaboration capabilities using IBM's Sametime suite, which DISA recently licensed to provide amenities such as Web conferencing, white board tools, application sharing, broadcasting, chat, and audio and video capabilities to soldiers.

"[DKO] will also provide a cost reduction across the DoD by leveraging enterprise buying power of the DoD versus each service and agency buying and maintaining separate portals," says Marvin Wages, deputy chief of the knowledge management division at the Army CIO's office.

It could take longer than planned for this to happen, however. Initial expectations had the first version of DKO launching this summer, but budget problems, along with ensuring that the AKO architecture can scale to the expected number of DKO users, has put the start off to a time yet to be decided.

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