Border agency leads DHS server merger

The Homeland Security Department has launched a massive initiative to consolidate its servers by starting with one of its key agencies, the Border and Transportation Security Directorate.

Agency leaders seized on that particular agency because of the inherent synergy of missions carried out by Border and Transportation Security's components, including the bureaus of Immigration, Naturalization Services, Customs and the Transportation Security Administration.

"Our [information technology] challenge goes far beyond the borders of the department," said Mark Emery, DHS deputy chief information officer, noting that it would open up a two-way communication route with state, local, and tribal governments and private industry.

BTS, the largest of DHS' five directorates, consists of agencies focused on ways to "facilitate the free movement of people and goods through the United States economy," Emery told industry representatives at a Unisys Corp. seminar today.

"We thought we had to organize very quickly our IT function around that mission point of view," he said.

The Border and Transportation agency represents a large portion of the IT infrastructure to be consolidated for DHS. The project will merge about 70 percent of the system.

"Establishing a good model for BTS would facilitate completion of work for the rest of the department," Emery said.

Merging IT systems can cut costs and boost security. But an IT merger also has challenges, said Holly Twining, an associate CIO for the Transportation Department, whose agency's consolidation will occur over the next 18 months. To prevent consolidation from becoming "calamitization," department officials should set quantifiable goals, Twining said.

Internal differences can arise during the transition to a centralized system, said Charles Gerhards, a former Pennsylvania CIO who now has his own consulting firm.

Rather than follow industry best practices, DHS has created a senior advisory board representing about eight companies, plus retired private sector CIOs with no vested business interest in the department's efforts to merge its IT. Those CIOs came from the New York Stock Exchange, Pharmacia, J.P. Morgan Chase and Co., and DuPont. Firms such as Unisys and Booze Allen Hamilton Inc., who could potentially sell services to DHS, were not included on the board.

Nevertheless, DHS' technology consolidation is different from corporate mergers, Emery said.

"Usually when a merger is announced in the private sector, you've got 12 to 18 months before the government approves the merger, so you've got a lot of planning time," Emery said. "When day one hits, there are a lot of things that are already in place."

But Steve Cooper, CIO for Homeland Security, ensured that DHS at least had a common network and common email addresses by the time the IT consolidation project started, Emery said.

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