U.S. Army leading the way in portal technology

The U.S. Army has overhauled its Web presence with a new intranet portal called Army Knowledge Online (AKO) that is designed to provide all 1.2 million active duty soldiers, National Guardsmen, reservists, civilians and contractors a one-stop shop for Army information.

The initiative, which started last December as part of the Army’s knowledge management overhaul strategy, became official Army policy Oct. 30, when Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki issued an order requiring all Army personnel to sign up for an AKO account.

Since then, 650,000 users, or about 10,000 new users a week, have signed up for portal accounts, said Army Col. Bob Coxe, chief technology officer for the Army.

Michael Friedel, director of government solutions at Cambridge, Mass.-based Art Technology Group Inc. (ATG), which provided the application server software, said that while there are other very large portals in existence, most focus on transactions, not personalization.

“The difference is that the Army’s will be very personal,” said Friedel. “It’s probably the largest knowledge management application that you will find in the world today.”

The main thrust of the new portal is the integration of the Army’s global business practices into a secure, single sign-on portal environment, said Coxe. “In order to be relevant to the Army you need to get into their mainstream core business processes,” he said. “Our old portal was about moving information and [customizing] information. That was kind of interesting a couple of years ago and probably state of the art at that time, but nowadays that’s not what it’s about.”

U.S. troops and civilian personnel deployed around the world are now connected to their home bases and families in the continental U.S. through the AKO Web site. Single sign-on technology supported by 128-bit Secure Sockets Layer encryption gives users access to the entire portal. In addition, troops currently deployed to the Balkans and other areas around the world are able to “reach-back” into the Army’s U.S.-based enterprise and talk to family and friends through instant messaging services, said Coxe.

Instant messaging has become a critical element in the Army’s morale, welfare and recreation program, said Coxe. In fact, when the Army’s director of information management in the Balkans shut down instant messaging service to the troops serving on the front lines in Bosnia, “it quickly became a four-star [general] issue” and was reinstated, Coxe said.

Coxe said that by January he hopes to provide soldiers and employees the reach-back ability to view and manage a full array of personnel forms and processes, including leave and earnings statements and dependent benefit information. Likewise, the portal will provide everything that users would normally expect to find on Yahoo, such as weather, airline information and news, he said.

Possibly more important to the Army in the long term, however, is the ability to target segmented user communities, according to both Coxe and Friedel. The portal will enable senior officials to “capture intellectual property” and monitor and react to personnel areas that may be experiencing high turnover rates, said Friedel.

The AKO portal also supports secure, classified collaboration between senior-level officials, said Coxe. Known as the executive communications tool and information repository for action officers, this section of the portal offers highly restricted access to sensitive and classified content travelling across the Pentagon’s secret wide-area network, known as the Secret Internet Protocol Network.

In addition to ATG, at least half a dozen other companies are helping the Army continue its transition from a home page-based organization to a portal-driven enterprise.

Oracle Corp. provided the database; Appian Corp. in Arlington, Va., integrated the Army’s existing Web code with the single sign-on portal technology; Sun Microsystems Inc.’s iPlanet powers the Web server; TRW Inc. in Cleveland developed the system architecture; and Plano, Tex.-based Electronic Data Systems Corp. offered consulting on directories and personnel software issues.