Meeting the demand for data
- By John x_Zyskowski
- Jul 30, 2001
The growth of the Internet has fueled expectations that information will be only a mouse click away. Users don't really care where or how the data is stored; they just want to be able to call it up using a Web browser.
In the Army, for example, more and more people were asking to see personnel records.
"Because of the Internet, soldiers and corporate customers were asking for access to the records on the Net," said James Riggs, the program manager for the Personnel Electronic Records Management System (PERMS) at the Army's Personnel Command in Alexandria, Va.
Unfortunately, the records being requested were stored on a 10-year-old, semi-mechanical system that was never intended to support a large number of users.
But, as their counterparts learned with similar projects elsewhere in the federal government, Army officials discovered that adopting a standard Web-based architecture offers more than just a way to make information available to any employee with a Web browser. It opens numerous possibilities for managing information more efficiently by automating data exchanges and streamlining administrative procedures. That can save time and money and improve services.
The Personnel Command manages the records for all active-duty, Army Reserve and Army National Guard soldiers, from the time they enlist until their separation from the service. The Army uses the records—which include information about duty assignments, awards, training and performance evaluations — to process promotions and other administrative tasks. Officials also provide copies of the records to other government agencies, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, to confirm eligibility for benefits programs.
The Army built the first incarnation of PERMS in 1992 to replace the original paper and microfiche records. Modeling their efforts on systems used by the paper-intensive insurance and financial services industries, Army staffers scanned the documents to create electronic images of the original records and saved them on 12-inch optical disks, which in turn were stored in jukeboxes. Robotic arms in the jukeboxes loaded the disks into drives when someone needed to retrieve a record.
The imaging system worked well for its intended users—a relatively small group of about 400 to 600 Army recordkeepers who fill requests for records from Army promotion/selection boards and other offices and agencies. But the system's architecture, particularly the robotic arms that manually loaded the disks, was not designed to serve several hundred thousand soldiers asking to review their own files.
"Technically, we could have connected it to the Internet, but the system just couldn't accommodate that volume of customers," Riggs said.
So about three years ago, the Army decided to build a second-generation PERMS that would connect to the Internet. Such a system would require at least three features, Riggs said: new storage media that provided faster access to data, tight security for Internet trans.actions and the ability to support a high volume of requests.
To build those features, Army officials were intent on not reinventing the wheel. Instead, they would use best-of-breed, commercial off-the-shelf products and other proven systems whenever possible, Riggs said.
For the new storage system, the Army opted for a network-attached storage (NAS) product from Storage Engine Inc. (formerly ECCS Inc.). The company's Synchronection product combines a dedicated file server with a Redundant Array of Independent Disks storage subsystem. Unlike the delay associated with a nearline system like PERMS' older optical jukebox, a NAS system provides virtually instant access to online data.
The NAS system also simultaneously supports the various file protocols that the Army and many federal agencies use—the Network File System for Unix, the Common Internet File System for Microsoft Corp. Windows and HTTP for the World Wide Web.
A dedicated storage-area network (SAN) also was an option, but it would have been considerably more expensive than the NAS system, said Tim Berbrick, vice president of field technical operations at Storage Engine.
"A NAS [system] can easily plug into an existing environment of servers and switches; there's no need to upgrade anything," he said. "With a SAN, you have to upgrade the servers going into the SAN with Fibre Channel host bus adapters. You also have to put in additional Fibre Channel switchesand special SAN file-sharing software. So the costs are much higher."
Once the storage system was selected, the project's integrator, PRC Inc., developed software to help transfer the image files from the older optical disks to the new NAS systems at all four PERMS locations, each of which has its own imaging system and jukebox.
The Army has finished transferring the image files at three sites: the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Va.; the Officer Records Branch in Alexandria; and the Enlisted Records and Evaluation Center in Indianapolis. Data transfer is under way at the last site, the Army Reserve Personnel Command in St. Louis. The last site is also the largest, with about 16 million images, compared with the 15 million images in the three other sites combined.
The next part of the project, already under way, involves developing the applications that will give soldiers and other authorized users access to the records. Of course, security is a key issue.
For the soldier-access application, rather than building a new security infrastructure, PERMS will link with the Army's official Web portal, Army Knowledge Online (AKO). Once the integration is finished later this summer, soldiers who want to review or update their personnel records can visit the AKO Web site (www.us.army.mil), which will authenticate their identities and create a secure connection to PERMS using 128-bit encryption.
Likewise, to provide other organizations with access to PERMS, the Army has capitalized on a Defense Department project. The integrator, CACI International Inc., is building a system for the Office of the Secretary of Defense called the Defense Personnel Records Imaging System, which will provide the Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies with direct electronic access to military personnel records.
"We hired [CACI] to customize the interfaces for us, to capitalize on their effort to build the DOD system," said Riggs, who expects the VA-PERMS connection to be completed by the end of summer.
And Army officials have plenty of other plans for the new PERMS that may save the service time and money. For example, this year they will begin developing a system that enables members of selection boards, which oversee promotions, to review personnel records and cast votes online. That will replace the current system in which board members submit requests to the Personnel Command, then wait as long as six weeks to receive microfiche records.
The Army is also testing new field-to-file systems so field units can send electronic files, including faxes, directly to the database.
"The greatest savings for all this is in the human resources area," Riggs said. "It is costly when you have processes that involve a lot of touches along the way. Now we can reduce the manual costs tremendously. And we can provide faster service for everyone."