GAO: Improve SEVIS metrics

Government Accountability Office report on SEVIS

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A federal Internet-based system for tracking foreign and exchange students is falling short of some performance requirements, such as measuring system availability and help-desk responses, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Last week, GAO released a report detailing several problems, but overall the report indicated that the Homeland Security Department's Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) has steadily improved since it began operating two years ago.

But unless DHS formally monitors and documents all key system performance requirements, it cannot effectively ensure that problems with SEVIS will be identified and addressed in a timely manner.

Administered by DHS' Immigration and Customs Enforcement, SEVIS collects various types of data, including students' biographical information and academic data such as status, when they began studying, their degree program and field of study, and any disciplinary action taken against a student or visitor. Universities, exchange visitor programs and federal agencies use the information to monitor the students, visitors and academic programs.

Although the system's performance requirements are being met, not all are being measured, according to the GAO report. For example, the system must be available 99.5 percent of the time to all users around-the-clock, excluding scheduled downtime. However, DHS’ performance reports gauging the system's availability measured the time the system infrastructure -- which supports multiple DHS Internet-based applications -- was successfully connected to the network.

The infrastructure includes common services such as application servers, Web servers, database servers and network connections. SEVIS shares five application servers and two Web servers with two other applications, the report states.

"While these [performance] reports can be used to identify problems that could affect the system availability, they do not fully measure SEVIS availability," the report states. "Instead, they measure the availability of the communications software on the application servers. This means that the SEVIS application could still be unavailable even though the communications software is available."

Another performance requirement is measuring resource usage to detect when allocated resources for the CPU, disk space, RAM and network exceed 50 percent.

But the performance report for resource usage measures the shared infrastructure environment and not specifically the SEVIS-related central processing performance.

"Program officials did not provide any reports that measured performance against other resource usage requirements, such as random access memory and network usage," according to the GAO report.

The report also indicated that there are several problems related to SEVIS' slow or incorrect help-desk support. According to the report, DHS officials are addressing the system's problems, but some, such as the help-desk issue, persist.

Not fixing such problems, GAO auditors wrote, "can create hardships for foreign students and exchange visitors that can potentially have unintended consequences relative to these foreign students and exchange visitors applying to and enrolling in U.S. learning institutions."

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