Data center project could make DHS what it was meant to be
The Homeland Security Department – whose agencies maintain some of the biggest repositories of national security data in the world – earlier this year announced it had consolidated 12 of 43 legacy data centers, as part of a wholesale, multiyear IT streamlining effort.
DHS says it will migrate its remaining legacy centers by 2015 to one of two departmentwide enterprise centers.
The project is sorely needed, both at the department and the agency level. In an audit earlier this year, the DHS Inspector General noted that one of DHS’s 22 sub-agencies, the Secret Service, was running 42 applications supporting both its anticounterfeiting and presidential security duties on a 1980s mainframe with a 68 percent performance rating.
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So if DHS meets its IT consolidation target, it will be a landmark achievement in sheer scale and complexity: the consolidation and foundation of a law enforcement and intelligence network that will rival the Pentagon’s in its impact on the social, demographic and economic life of the nation.
While DHS’s data center plan is driven by the need to cut costs and topple stovepipes, more fundamentally it reopens the homeland security enterprise to large-scale innovations.
In meeting its consolidation targets, the DHS will have put in place the virtual data layer of a national enterprise network. With its data centralized, DHS can begin to use big data in a way that was only a homeland security pipe dream when the department was legislated into existence after 9/11.
Enterprise modernization also sets in motion the adoption of better information-sharing tools that will enable DHS and its policymakers to adapt more fluidly to trends in social media and cyber warfare. Hemmed in by stovepipes, it has been impossible to react rapidly to these new, more amorphous forms of law enforcement intell.
Even so, the advantages of DHS’s emerging network will create newer, more confounding IT challenges. In unifying its information-sharing operations, DHS will be exposed to the risks common to big, grid-like networks. The more widespread the network, the more vulnerable it may be to electronic sabotage.
Above all, DHS’s data center plan paves the way for it to improve information sharing with other government agencies as well as commercial players. In recent remarks, National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander said the Defense Department needs “information sharing, in time and at network speed” in order to protect cyberspace. Especially important, Alexander said, was access to threat information from private firms and other government agencies.
With data center consolidation underway and its upcoming milestones in view, DHS will finally be capable of high-performance information sharing with DOD as well as civilian federal, state and local agencies. And with its big stovepipes down, DHS will be able to deliver on its promise of becoming a truly data-driven domestic defense department.
Paul McCloskey is editor-in-chief of GCN. Follow him on Twitter: @Paul_GCN.