Integration challenge for new homeland security agency

The official activation dates for the new U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the nation’s first Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC) are fast approaching. But experts warn that true enterprise integration is many months, if not years, in the future.

The new DHS will be legally activated tomorrow, marking the initial reassignment of various federal security agencies to the new organization. Likewise, by May 1, the director of Central Intelligence must have in place the TTIC, a joint information-sharing effort by the CIA, the FBI, the DHS and the State Department mandated by President George W. Bush in his State of the Union Address.

While most security and IT experts say neither of these efforts is technologically impossible, all agree that issues of policy, process, privacy and security will pose the greatest challenge to true enterprise integration.

“Everybody says this is an extraordinary task, it’s a difficult task, it can’t be done,” Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge said on Tuesday. “We understand that, as we merge some of these different units together, we have to have a sensitivity as to how business was conducted in the past … as we work together to do a better job and build even more capacity. … But we understand that tradition, we understand that history, we understand that culture.”

The central debate revolving around the integration of these critical organizations will be deciding between two competing IT architectural approaches, said William McKnight, president of McKnight Associates Inc., a Dallas-based data warehousing and customer relationship management consulting firm.

“There is an enterprise data warehouse approach [under consideration], and then there is a federated type approach,” said McKnight. “I think ultimately there will have to be some combination of both in a final solution for something of this magnitude.”

In an enterprise data warehouse approach, multiple databases would ultimately feed data into a single database where data would conform to a common standard and would be cleansed, integrated and available in a single instance. “Sometimes, however, this approach gets a black eye,” said McKnight, explaining that those who implement it often try to do too much at one time. “The first iteration proves the architecture. Then you get a solid tool set and get the processes in place. And then you add data sources over the course of time. The reality is that you never get to an end state; you keep going.”

He said, however, that elements of a federated data mart approach might be useful to the homeland security effort. “There may be certain data that is not pertinent to the effort as a whole and does not need to flow into the central data warehouse,” he said.

“A true federated environment shares some data across all data marts, so there is some common staging ground,” he said. The bottom line difference between the two approaches is how much data is actually shared. That decision comes down to policy and security, he said.

“I’m not as concerned about incompatible architectures as I am about the processes which are not in place to resolve such problems,” said Bill Malik, chief technology officer at Waveset Technologies in Austin, Texas. “There is no mechanism to either define or preserve the architectural integrity of the organization,” he said, adding that few, if any, government organizations have been able to maintain a long-term architectural vision.

Allen Shay, president and chief operating officer of NCR Government Systems Corp., a division of Teradata, said no significant IT systems have been deployed to address the overall integration challenges. “Realistically, you’re going to see pilot and prototype capabilities appear in the latter half of this year,” said Shay. “We will get to the two-year anniversary of Sept. 11, and I would hazard to say that at that point we will not have any major systems deployed doing really complex analytics.”

A former senior member of the President’s Critical Infrastructure Protection Board said politics and policy issues could also be potential obstacles. “Some of NIPC’s people and resources have already been carved off by the FBI to prevent them from moving to DHS,” the official said, referring to the FBI’s National Infrastructure Protection Center. “As a result, the transition office plan is still a draft.”

In addition, “it will be months before TTIC is an effective organization,” the official said. “Technically, I’m not too worried. My experience showed me that you can create a system where CIA, DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] and NSA [National Security Agency] products all flow into your in-box. The challenge will be what gets disseminated by CIA and NSA, which has always been the biggest problem.

“For its first year, [the TTIC] will be a glorified briefing office for senior officials,” the official said.

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