30 years in the making

'It used to be a pain' for soldiers to retrieve their personnel records, the Army's James P. Riggs says.

Army nears goal of 24-7, real-time personnel system

It all began with a fire''it' being the Army's move to create an electronic records repository for military personnel files.

The Army estimates that it is 18 months from finishing a system that will let soldiers access and update their own records online, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The service began the effort in earnest nearly 30 years ago, when a two-day blaze obliterated 65 years' worth of military records for 18 million Army and Air Force personnel.

The 1973 fire destroyed much of the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, and from its ashes began a march toward electronic records.

The Official Military Personnel File Online system will encompass 135 million records for about 1.2 million people. Eventually, the digital storehouse could hold up to 17T worth of background data about soldiers' deployments, promotions and pay.

Without complete and accurate service records, 'a soldier is not comfortable competing for promotions,' said James P. Riggs, program manager for the Army's Personnel Electronic Records Management System, of which OMPF is a component.

'If the process is too cumbersome, they're just not going to mess with it,' Riggs said. 'Now, literally in 30 minutes, they're in and out.'

In the past, soldiers in search of promotion have had to mail in requests for copies of their microfiche files, then wait weeks for printouts to arrive. Making any updates to the records prolonged the wait by several more weeks. Soldiers could shorten the delay only by taking leave to travel personally to one of four far-flung warehouse sites.

'It used to be a pain,' Riggs said. 'Not everybody would do that.'

Active-duty Army records are stockpiled on microfiche in Indianapolis; officers' records in Alexandria, Va.; Army Reserve records in St. Louis; and National Guard officer records in Arlington, Va. Each state stored its own enlisted National Guard records.

By the mid-1990s, Army leaders were asking for Web access to the data. The first prototype appeared in 2001.

Northrop Grumman Corp. built the Web infrastructure for the $2 million OMPF database, planting local application servers at the four warehouses to retrieve and reformat files. Front-end transaction servers supply the browser interface to soldiers.

No heavy lifting

The first soldier users entered through the Army Knowledge Online portal in November 2001, searching for stored records based on their Social Security numbers. The system returned images of documents and their metadata translated via a Java Database Connectivity application programming interface.

'We didn't want to require any plug-ins,' said Steve Warner, Northrop Grumman's technical director for PERMS. 'That means all of the heavy lifting is done on the application servers.'
Within the first six months, 800,000 people were able to check their service records online. During peak hours, an estimated 600,000 use the system today, notching up more than 1 million hits and 4,000 documents viewed.

The prototype is being tested in three states to bring the National Guard's users online. This work is managed by Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego. Eventually, OMPF could link to the National Archives and Records Administration, Marine Corps records, the Navy's Electronic Military Personnel Records System and the Defense Department's Defense Personnel Records Imaging System.

Starting nine months ago, soldiers also were able to ask their local personnel departments to
e-mail their updated service records to OMPF's servers, which run Microsoft Windows 2000 and Exchange Server 5.5, or to fax them to Faxcom servers from Biscom Inc. of Chelmsford, Mass. The files go into temporary databases until OK'd by Army officials and passed to PERMS.

To store the personnel records, the system relies on a RAID storage area network unit from LSI Logic Corp. of Milpitas, Calif., attached to a Sun Microsystems Fire V880 server running Solaris 8.

In the project's final phase, the Army will launch iPERMS, or interactive PERMS'a re-engineered version of the system that will let soldiers personally update the records in real time.

In addition to the SAN and Sun server, Northrop Grumman built the PERMS online system with a variety of servers, desktop PCs, databases and operating systems from Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Oracle Corp.

NetIQ Corp. of San Jose, Calif., supplied a three-tiered software suite to measure OMPF's performance based on more than 1,400 preset thresholds for factors such as high temperatures or hard drive failures.

NetIQ's AppManager 5.0.1 monitoring agent on desktop systems reports to a central management server, which feeds a Microsoft SQL Server 2000 repository. When online traffic tops the performance thresholds, the management server'and sometimes the desktop agents'can e-mail or page administrators with one of about 30 suggested automated fixes.

'There's great breadth out of the box,' said Scott Hollis, NetIQ marketing director. 'It can drill in and remotely see what is happening in real time.'

Northrop Grumman officials said AppManager must still encrypt data streams from its desktop agents to its management servers. But in the meantime, Army officials are concentrating on OMPF's future, especially in the wireless environment.

'We are very close to someone opening up a personal digital assistant and doing this,' Riggs said. 'We're just a piece of software away.'

Reader Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above