Army brass tweak portal

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ATLANTA — In one of his first decisions as the new Army chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker told the service's top information technology executives to make the popular Army Knowledge Online portal easier to use, Army IT officials said.

Schoomaker also inquired about putting AKO permanently on the Defense Department's classified Secret Internet Protocol Network (SIPRNET).

The Office of the Chief Information Officer must soon submit a study to Schoomaker on these ideas, said Lt. Gen. Steve Boutelle, the Army's CIO, speaking last week at the 2003 Army Directors of Information Management Conference.

"He's a very focused chief," Boutelle said, addressing the conference, which is cosponsored by his office and the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association. "I've had a lot of contact with him. He's very focused on technology, data links and satellite communications. He is also focused on warfighting and building on [former Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric] Shinseki's legacy."

FYI: Army Knowledge Online

The purpose of the Army Knowledge Online portal is to allow soldiers to quickly find and receive the latest information. The idea is to provide a portal through which users can gain quick access to Army news, distance-learning opportunities, lifetime e-mail accounts, a search engine and a chat room.

AKO's popularity grew as Army Knowledge Management, which aims to make information easily accessible and usable, expanded servicewide.

The number of portal users increased from 61,000 in June 2000 to 1.47 million in August 2003, and the portal exchanged more than 10 million instant messages in July.

AKO proved an invaluable resource in Iraq as soldiers and logisticians used SIPRNET to communicate and access warfighting and supply information. The Army took the portal's backup site and connected it to the secret network, leaving AKO without redundancy.

Army generals, soldiers and support personnel, however, apparently consider AKO difficult to use. A civilian user at the conference asked if the service discussed hiring librarians to better catalog information.

Gary Winkler, the CIO's director of enterprise integration, responded that the office does employ librarians and they often discuss new ways of grouping data. But the service will further research this concern, he said. "I never thought I would hear that Army Knowledge Online was critical to the combat in Iraq," said Army Deputy CIO Dave Borland.

An Army official acknowledged that the service spends $30 million annually on the portal.

But as AKO use grows, so does scrutiny of it, Army and industry officials said. Since 2000, the service has pulled money from other programs to fund it, but the Army will fund the portal as a single budget line item for the first time in its 2005-2009 future years defense plan, which is now under way, Borland said.

Schoomaker's question about putting AKO permanently on SIPRNET could be a controversial one, Army and industry officials said. Portal users then would require a classified clearance, which may be unrealistic, they said.

Schoomaker, former head of Special Operations Command, became chief of staff in July after Shinseki retired in June.

Most service and industry officials credit Shinseki for starting the service's transformation from a heavy, slow-to-deploy force to a lighter, rapidly deployable one.

But Army and industry officials expect Schoomaker to tweak Shinseki's four-year initiative, which he likely will announce this week at the Association of the United States Army annual conference in Washington, D.C.

Army and industry officials think Schoomaker will digitize the entire service through his fine-tuning.


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