Customs fails at system upgrade

The U.S. Customs Service practiced for nearly a year and conducted two full dress rehearsals. But in the end, it could not upgrade the aging computer system that deals with more than 100 million records and keeps imports moving across U.S. borders.

Customs took down its Automated Commercial System (ACS) for nearly 24 hours starting Feb. 17 to install a redesigned system that prevents duplication of invoices detailing the contents of shipments arriving in the United States. The agency also wanted to fix a number of other problems.

Two dozen officials sweated through the night at the agency's data headquarters in Springfield, Va., as technicians tried to upgrade the system.

"The bottom line is that we reached a point in the process where it was pretty obvious it was a problem," said Jerry Russomano, director of the software development division at Customs.

And so after the all-nighter, around 8:30 a.m., officials ordered the technicians to roll back the system to the old version.

"It certainly puts us back mentally. We had a lot of confidence in this. Now, we'll have to take a step back and reassess," Russomano said.

Customs scheduled the upgrade for a three-day weekend, and waited until after Valentine's Day so any problems with the computer system would not disrupt the flow of imported flowers.

Customs also is carrying out other maneuvers to keep ACS working. Congress has appropriated $123 million this year to keep ACS afloat, but it also has earmarked $130 million this year to begin building a new system known as the Automated Commercial Environment.

Customs is expected to award the prime contract this spring for the modernization program. It will cost at least $1 billion to build and take five years to complete. Meanwhile, officials intend to determine what went wrong and try to upgrade the system again.

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