'Agile' means different things across DHS

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The Department of Homeland Security is capitalizing on new "pay-to-play" cloud-based and commodity IT services, but immediate technology needs at its various, complex component agencies are pushing them toward different meanings of "fast" and "agile."

DHS is adopting more efficient, open-source, cloud-based IT services to better serve component operations, CIO Luke McCormack said at Washington Technology's DHS Industry Day event on Dec. 1.

However, the move toward more efficient and nimble acquisition processes might not be happening fast enough for some components, said Mark Borkowski, assistant commissioner of the Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition at Customs and Border Protection.

With operations that span U.S. airports, seaports, the high seas and land borders, Borkowski said CBP's component agencies must support myriad capabilities while noting that there is tension between the demand for speed and the need for structure and discipline in making technology acquisitions.

A year and a half ago, DHS implemented a "unity of effort" initiative aimed at centralizing the way the department makes decisions. As part of the strategy's IT effort, DHS consolidated its data centers and is using them on a "consumption basis" through contractors, McCormack said.

The department is also adopting the Enterprise Computing Services model for data center support to capitalize on the flexibility, agility and savings offered by emerging cloud computing technologies.

McCormack said the ECS model takes DHS headquarters out of component agencies' acquisition processes and gives those agencies access to cloud services as they need them on an open-market basis.

He said DHS is also moving to a "default to open-source" approach to developing IT solutions. "As long as you have a good architecture upfront, you can build on top of it and swap stuff out as needed," McCormack said.

Despite the progress in technology development and acquisition, Borkowski said CBP's agencies have disparate needs and duties.

"It was a forced marriage [that] crammed together" a number of agencies whose duties ranged from inspecting plants for agricultural pests to tracking down potentially dangerous cross-border criminals and processing immigration data, he said.

CBP officials are still figuring out their overarching operational and mission support duties, but for some components, fast and agile development might take a back seat to immediate needs for technology such as border sensors and other tactical gear, Borkowski said, adding that to his customers, "acquisition means unnecessary bureaucracy."

"My customer wants to be able to send a memo that says, 'Buy me this, fix this' and 'deploy it tomorrow,'" he said.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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