At Virginia IT summit, Cooper says DHS has far to go

The current IT asset list is 80 percent to 90 percent complete, and 'in a year, I think we'll see we didn't miss any of the major things.' 'Homeland Security CIO Steve Cooper

Henrik G. de Gyor

ROANOKE, Va.'Steve Cooper acknowledges that when he took on the CIO job at the Homeland Security Department, he said yes to huge challenges.

'In hindsight, I might have done it differently'suggest tactfully that somebody else take the job,' Cooper said last week during a virtual appearance at the Commonwealth of Virginia IT Symposium 2003.

Cooper had canceled his plan to speak at the event the previous day but was persuaded to let EDS Corp. and Teleportec of Dallas quickly install 3-D holographic videoconferencing equipment in his Washington office.

He appeared in shirtsleeves on a windshield-like display without a TelePrompTer and answered questions from the 1,000-person audience.

Cooper said he has set two chief goals for himself: consolidate all DHS classified networks into one by December of next year and have a single DHS infrastructure in place a year after that.

Something he might have done differently at the start, Cooper said, was to keep the dedicated integration team he had formed while working at the White House Office of Homeland Security.

Abacus, anyone?

'We dissolved it,' he said, 'but maybe keeping it in place longer would have been beneficial. We're still learning things,' such as the true number of DHS employees. The department keeps a running hand-tallied list of its staff, with the total varying from 190,000 to 225,000 depending on which of the 22 component agencies' 24 human resources systems are consulted.

Another thing he wishes he'd done differently was to 'engage the contractors we already had to help us understand what was in place' in terms of IT assets such as LANs, WANs, operating systems, applications, directory services, databases, data marts and custom software critical to DHS' mission. That asset total is still unknown, but Cooper estimated it at 50,000 items.

'There are 7,000 or 8,000 applications in the mission space,' he said. 'I don't pretend to know the optimum number, but we have collectively agreed we need many fewer.'

The current IT asset list is 80 percent to 90 percent complete, he said and, 'in a year, I think we'll see we didn't miss any of the major things.'

DHS started operations Jan. 20 as a conglomeration of 22 agencies, some of them two centuries old. 'We didn't have an acquiring entity,' Cooper said. 'We are a merger. There's no entity to break ties or make calls about policy.' So he set about designing a three-step decision hierarchy to approve IT investments at the $3 million, $10 million and $50 million levels.

The first decision group is the DHS CIO Council, of which Cooper is chairman. It meets weekly, and its chief decision so far has been to standardize on an e-mail platform.

'From day one, we needed e-mail' with a common dhs.gov domain, he said. 'We had an easy, noncontroversial decision to make Microsoft Exchange the common e-mail platform' because it already was in use at 80 percent of the agencies.

But that was the only easy decision.

More difficult has been instilling the principle of an open, heterogeneous environment, he said. 'We want as much competition as possible for the private sector, not a lock-in on one vendor's solution set.' He qualified that to exclude classified and intelligence environments.

He's still working on implementing directory services, however, 'so that most employees and contractors' can use the dhs.gov domain.

Cooper said his plan is to create families of applications that deal with vulnerability and threat assessments of travelers as well as cargoes. 'It doesn't make sense for the department to support overlapping applications,' he said. 'We've begun to assess how to move from a dozen or 14 down to a small number.' But that number is not yet known.

'The principle is, do no harm,' he said. 'It's absolutely imperative that we don't interrupt the services being delivered.'

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