Net Sentinel offers to file agencies' archiving woes

As federal agencies anticipate new requirements for maintaining their electronic files, a new company plans to offer, starting today, to take the problem of archiving and storing these documents off their hands.

For a monthly fee, Net Sentinel Inc., Annandale, Va., will archive the contents of agency World Wide Web sites and desktop machines, including the history of changes employees make to documents. Barry Nelson, vice president of sales with Sales Resources Consultants Inc., which started Net Sentinel in partnership with telecommunications firm TCI, said the service is a response to federal agencies' struggles with maintaining their electronic records.

"What the federal government people haven't been able to do is tell us what is a record,'' Nelson said. In the meantime, he said, Net Sentinel can capture "100 percent'' of agency Web pages or desktop hard drives until officials decide which files they want to keep.

Ronald Maierhofer, president of Net Sentinel, said that as part of its service, the company will extract any subset of the information it maintains for its customers using a proprietary software tool. The technology behind the service combines software for collecting and managing information with workflow, access control, archiving and data retrieval tools supplied by TCI subsidiary Intessera Technologies Group.

Nelson said that in preparation for launching the service, Net Sentinel has been monitoring nearly 10,000 federal Web sites and plans to send electronic mail to 11,000 agency officials this week asking them to sign up for the service. In addition, Nelson and Maierhofer said, the firm is negotiating a desktop archiving deal with the Defense Logistics Agency and a marketing agreement with the National Technical Information Service, but neither pact had been completed at press time.

The offer comes as agencies are balking at the potential costs and logistics of storing their e-mail, word processing files and other documents until they can be reviewed by the National Archives and Records Administration. A lawsuit against the government by the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen is seeking to halt the destruction of any digital documents until records experts can assess their historical importance. Federal Webmasters and records management experts said outsourcing the maintenance of these files would be, at best, a temporary solution. In the long run, they said, agencies will not keep everything, and they need effective tools for capturing and maintaining just the documents they have to preserve.

"On the surface it seems to take the burden off the shoulders of the agencies,'' said Dean Bundy, a records manager with the Naval Research Laboratory and co-chairman of an interagency working group on electronic records management. "The [questions are], 'What are they going to store it on...how much volume are they able to handle, and how will they be able to retrieve the stuff when agencies come back and ask for it, if agencies ever do?' "

Bundy said that "sending their data off to some vendor to store for them is just postponing the inevitable solution'' because agencies will not have the staff to sort the material later. One reason records managers want electronic record-keeping systems is that documents can be cataloged as they are created, similar to the way paper files are organized in folders so they can be found when someone asks for them.

"The point is not just to keep things,'' said J. Timothy Sprehe, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant on electronic records issues. "The point is to keep only those things you need to keep and be able to retrieve them when you need to retrieve them.''

Rich Kellett, division director for emerging IT applications with the General Services Administration and head of the Federal Webmasters Forum, said it is not clear how much of their Web sites agencies need to save, even though Web technology, with its standard interface and search tools, might be a good platform for managing agency files. He noted the government has not set rules for when, if ever, agencies must preserve the contents of their Web pages.

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