DOD's uberportal

Proponents say DKO could be a new model for developing information systems. But critics question the speedy patch-it-together approach

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DISA’s Croom era

The Defense Department is developing a Defense Knowledge Online Web portal using an approach unlike any it has used to develop joint programs in the past. Besides creating a portal for all of DOD’s employees, senior officials say that with DKO they are creating a new model for acquiring information technology.

DKO will offer a one-stop shop where all DOD users can go to post, process, use, store, manage and protect information resources. DKO will serve as the überportal, a single entry-point to all service portals in DOD, officials said. DKO will establish a departmentwide platform, integrate proven capabilities from existing military portals and achieve efficiencies by optimizing resources. DKO will promote information sharing and support departmentwide collaboration tools and applications.

Two senior officials who devised the DKO model — Lt. Gen. Charles Croom, director of the Defense Information Systems Agency, and Lt. Gen. Steve Boutelle, the Army’s chief information officer — think DOD’s nontraditional approach to creating the portal is as valuable as the portal itself.

“There’s plenty of room in the acquisition process for flexibility,” Croom said. “We’ve got to find where that flexibility exists and really home in on it.”

Croom and Boutelle say the increasing pace of technology and the decreasing usefulness of traditional IT acquisition methods demanded a novel approach. But in their rush to achieve results, critics say, DOD officials are bending the rules and taking too many risks. Both sides agree, however, that DOD’s commitment to create a departmentwide portal will produce technology and program management innovations as project leaders cope with funding, billing, software licensing and technical challenges.

DKO is based on DISA’s ABC strategy — adopt, buy and create technologies in descending order of preference, Croom said. Regular acquisition methods are too slow, he added. For example, if someone wants to establish a joint program office, he said, “it takes us years to get the billets from the services.” So he created a mechanism for the services to work cooperatively and pool resources.

In 2005, Croom approached Boutelle and asked to use the Army Knowledge Online (AKO) portal as the basis for DKO. Boutelle agreed. The Army, whose portal has 1.8 million users, had already done much of the work, Croom said.

Starting a new enterprise portal was financially unrealistic, Boutelle said. Expanding AKO was the only way to move forward, he added.

DISA is using its Net-Centric Enterprise Services (NCES) contract, whose requirements include an enterprise portal, as a contractual mechanism to support DKO. DISA has hired the Army as a managed service provider to deliver the capability of DKO and provide life cycle management. The project’s funding is one of its novel aspects. AKO is funded through Army-specific contracts. Those include a $152 million Lockheed Martin contract awarded in July 2005 and an operations and maintenance contract with CherryRoad Technologies. Funding for those contracts, however, cannot be used to serve non-Army users, according to contract rules, Boutelle said.

Croom and Boutelle agreed that DISA would reimburse the Army for DKO development work using portal funds from DISA’s NCES contract.

Next, the Croom/Boutelle team had to persuade the rest of DOD to join the effort. Earlier this year, they created a freestanding governance organization for DKO. The organization has a board of directors on which Croom and Boutelle serve as co-chairmen. Members of the organization include the CIOs of the Air Force and Navy and senior officials from the Marine Corps, Joint Forces Command and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Not so fast
After a sluggish start, the board now meets about every 10 days to review the DKO project and make decisions, Croom said. With regular attention from senior leaders representing all of the military services, the project gained momentum. “All of a sudden, things started moving faster, [and] the barriers between the services started falling down,” he said.

Supporters are pleased about the speed at which the DKO project is moving forward, but others have concerns about the process. Paralysis by analysis has doomed past IT acquisitions, but a focus on speed also increases the risk of failure, said Jim Weiler, executive director of the Interoperability Clearinghouse, an industry organization focused on enterprise technology solutions. Weiler said Croom’s ABC approach is on target, but he added that DKO’s underlying processes need to be changed to support that strategy.

Persuading the services to work together on DKO is remarkable, Weiler said. But, he added, he is concerned that DOD failed to properly fund DKO from the start and has not done enough to mitigate the inherent risks of that decision.

Army officials are aware of those concerns and are looking for solutions. Gary Winkler, director of the Army’s governance, acquisition and chief knowledge office, said DKO’s funding and governance mechanisms are not sustainable. “We’re OK for the short term to do DKO and AKO, but we know for the long term we are not,” he said. For example, the Army’s AKO contract with Lockheed Martin specifically permits integration with DISA and the Joint Forces Command but not with all the military services, Winkler said.

The next AKO upgrade, scheduled for release at the end of this year, will offer unsponsored user access for all DOD users, Winkler said. “Everybody shares the vision. The question is, what is the best path to get to that vision?"

Ultimately, DOD will have to award a contract for the DKO portal, Winkler said. The DKO board of directors has asked for a new contracting strategy to be completed this month, he added.

Billing questions
Meanwhile, Winkler said, the Air Force, Navy and Marines can use their own portal contracts to contribute to DKO via inter-service agreements like the one the Army and DISA signed July 16. But billing the services for DKO is always not an easy process.

DKO’s various features have different value to different users, Boutelle said, and the Army hasn’t completely figured out how to bill each service for payment. “What looks like a very simple thing…turns out to be an extremely complex process, as we are learning,” he said.

Technical challenges also must be resolved. For example, AKO is not based on a service-oriented architecture. An SOA provides a framework for developing software components to manage data communications among different systems. NCES requires that DKO use a SOA framework.

Software licensing is also problematic. DOD will have to renegotiate or replace many software licenses when AKO becomes DKO, Boutelle said. AKO uses an older version of Appian portal software running on Sun Microsystems’ Solaris. DKO project leaders will upgrade the AKO portal to the newest version of Appian, which is SOA-compliant, before transitioning the portal to DKO, they said.

Each service must develop a plan for moving to DKO. Draft plans are due this month, Winkler said.

Some of the services complain that DKO is moving too fast. The Air Force is lobbying for a more flexible migration plan than the Army envisions, said Col. Marcus Miller, chief of the Enterprise Information Services Division in the Air Force Office of Warfighting Integration and CIO. The Air Force, which has the second largest portal in DOD, serves about 800,000 users.

DOD needs to present a strong business case and help with change management before the transition to DKO occurs, Miller said. Unlike the Army, the Air Force will have added costs when it transitions its users to DKO, he said.

The Air Force hasn’t given the Army any money for DKO development, but it expects to contribute, Miller added. “There [are] a lot of decisions yet to be made,” he said. “The fun has just started.”

DISA to offer users a 'two button' choice for collaborationWhen it is completed, the Defense Knowledge Online Web portal will offer collaboration tools and applications for all Defense Department users. The Defense Information Systems Agency is still in the process of acquiring those tools and applications.

The Defense Information Systems Agency awarded a contract to IBM in July for its Lotus Sametime suite of collaboration tools. Those tools include instant messaging, live chat, an electronic whiteboard and Webconferencing.

But DISA Director Lt. Gen. Charles Croom said the portal isn't complete. He intends to award a second contract for collaboration tools that will compete with IBM's for users' preference. Speaking at AFCEA International's LandWarNet Conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in August, Croom said DKO will offer uses a "two-button" choice of collaboration tools. Users will be able to choose the one that best meets their needs.

"We'll have a little competition going on between Button A and Button B," Croom said. That competition will encourage vendors to market their products to DOD and increase their use, he said. Vendors will have an additional incentive to refine their tools to meet user specifications, he added.

DISA pays IBM on a fee-per-use basis, an arrangement that is not popular with some companies and their congressional allies, a DISA spokesperson said. But the agency is not considering changing its usage-based fees, Croom said.

Adopting products already in use avoids the acquisition process, and buying commercial products moves DOD away from imposing tight government standards, he said.

— Josh Rogin

Army deploys knowledge portal on the front linesAKO Forward is a program that will push Army Knowledge Online services to the deployed warfighter, according to Army officials who are replicating the AKO infrastructure and sending it overseas. AKO Forward will give soldiers easy access to e-mail, personnel applications and communication with friends and family.

AKO Forward will address the scarcity of bandwidth in the forward theater of operations, said Gary Winkler, director of the Army's Acquisitions, Governance and Chief Knowledge Office.

The first iteration AKO Forward will be installed in Southwest Asia for Non-Secured IP Network users in October, said Lt. Col. Skip Harborth, AKO's chief of future operations. The infrastructure will be housed at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. The 160th Signal Brigade housed there will manage the AKO databases.

AKO Forward will speed the delivery of services and assets by reducing the distance and number of network devices between the system and the user, Harborth said. The Army envisions having four AKO Forward sites in locations such as Germany, South Korea and the U.S. Army, Pacific, officials said.

— Josh Rogin

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