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2007 GCN Award: Alien project helps intell community share and analyze data worldwide

Alien team builds a clean machine

The Defense Intelligence Agency project team that built Alien encountered both unexpected dilemmas and moments of serendipity as they shaped the framework, program manager Ralph Liberati recounted in a message.

'There were two major problems which surfaced during the development and implementation of the Alien,' Liberati said. 'First, we discovered that without high-fidelity data, the advanced search features of Alien have significantly reduced value to the analysts.'

The Alien team devoted a significant number of engineering and testing cycles to test its work against live, production data to ensure that the framework properly tags data and provides reliable and repeatable content discovery, he said.

The second problem, Liberati said, was that 'many of the [commercial] tools we used within Alien did not respond well to malformed data and data that lacked consistency.'

The team spent many hours designing and building error-handling and exception-processing methods to help clean the data and suppress the commercial tools' objections to the rocky data.

Meanwhile, the team's labors to clean the data and provide methods to properly tag the information had an unexpected and welcome side effect.

'The biggest 'aha' moment for the Alien team was the realization that the filtering and tagging we were performing to help clean up the data environment could also be used to provide highly secure and robust cross-domain solutions,'' Liberati said.

' Wilson P. Dizard III

WHAT: Defense Intelligence Agency's All-source Intelligence Environment.

MISSION: Deliver premier intelligence products to
customers in the Defense Department and the intelligence community.

CHALLENGE: Improve the information resources available to intelligence analysts working at the top-secret level by bolstering information sharing along with data discovery and interpretation methods.

SOLUTION: DIA built the Alien framework to provide a critical information bridge among the national, theater and tactical command levels, incorporating service-oriented architecture along with market and government standards to improve security and data access.

IMPACT: The Alien Data Systems project as a whole has greatly improved intelligence analysts' ability to weave together intelligence from various sources that previously were available in or outside the DOD Intelligence Information Systems array, while upgrading security.

COST: DIA estimates that spending on Alien since late 2006 has amounted to about $20 million annually.

SIFTING DATA: Ralph Liberati says Alien helps parse millions of reports.

Zaid Hamid

CAREFUL CONSTRUCT: The Alien team took a layered approach to building in security.

Zaid Hamid

The Defense Intelligence Agency, looking for a framework to help intelligence analysts find answers to their most pressing national security questions, decided to apply the power of service-oriented architecture to data exploitation. The result is the All-Source Intelligence Environment, known as Alien.

For the complete list of the 2007 GCN Award winners, click here


Alien team members such as program manager Ralph Liberati; his deputy, Chad Bepple; and Lewis Shepherd, DIA's group chief for requirements and research, worked closely with the Defense Department's intelligence customer base as they developed the evolving system.

[IMGCAP(1)]Brig. Gen. Mary Legere of U.S. Forces Korea and her intelligence analysts provided critical feedback on how the Alien framework could improve their abilities to obtain dynamic access to previously unshared and sensitive information sources, DIA said.

The agency used the services of McDonald Bradley to build Alien. DIA planners are drafting their budget plans for Alien's continuing support and development, which likely will involve expenditures of about $20 million annually, according to the agency.

Funds for the initial Alien development work came largely from allocations for pre-existing DIA systems.

The framework, also referred to as Alien Data Systems, works as an information technology pattern for the Defense Department Intelligence Information Systems (DODIIS), an array of assets that form an information bridge among national, theater and tactical command levels.

[IMGCAP(2)]As DIA describes the framework, Alien is not a single application or system but an array of services and capabilities implemented at an enterprise scale to serve the needs of intelligence community and DOD analysts and decision-makers.

Eventually, Alien will mesh with developing information systems known as the intelligence community data layer and the
National Intelligence Library to serve as an expanded source of data across the intell arena.

Alien evolved from DIA's existing IT infrastructure partly as a means of achieving two developing aspects of the department's technology: the overarching Net-Centric Enterprise Services vision of military activities and the increasing drive to the use of SOA.

'Alien as a program was first discussed at the DODIIS worldwide conference in May of 2006, tasked in June of 2006 and the first prototype was deployed in October of 2006,' Liberati said. The Alien team has been developing the framework in progressive steps since then, he added. Some capabilities already have been fielded, and a major suite of additional functions is scheduled for activation in March 2008.

One key improvement Alien offers over its pre-existing counterparts is better data search functions, DIA said.

The Alien program team chose the two search engines used in the framework by running a bake-off of the leading commercial systems in the field, Shepherd said.
After comparing the results of the comparative search engine tests, the team decided to incorporate tools from Autonomy and
Endeca Technologies.

The Endeca platform uses a search method fortified by guided-navigation technology that helps the user narrow the range of information available within a search by progressively defining it more precisely, Shepherd said.

Liberati expanded on the advantages of the SOA elements of the search engine technology, adding that the 'use of metadata standards, taxonomies and Web service standards allow for data discovery via text matching, dimensional and concept searching.'

The framework's use of knowledge objects lets analysts create and maintain relationships among the objects that are useful in the process of understanding the intelligence the system retrieves from its various assets, DIA said.

The Alien team buttressed the security aspects of the framework by building its protections in layers and applying best practices to the safety features, the agency said. In addition, the Alien architecture is designed to help detect failures and breaches and ensure the framework's integrity.

'Systems are monitored constantly and security features
incorporated into designs to manage risk, and audit logging is very extensive,' Liberati said.

The framework enforces a high level of security compliance while removing the burden of back-end security administration from IT specialists deployed with military intelligence worldwide, DIA said, and the resulting savings can be used to provide access to more data sources.

The standards-based Web service features of the Alien framework allow users to quickly build their own front-end applications, the agency said. The framework allows data to be reused and repurposed, which reduces the number of overlapping systems needed as user interfaces or portals.

The ultimate benefit of the Alien framework, Liberati said, is that it will allow intelligence analysts to 'parse through millions of different intelligence reports to find ones that are relevant and meaningful for the questions they want to
answer: the who, what, when and how' related to topics of national security interest.

'You could search on the name of a town [for example], and get all the messages or information related to that town and find relationships you didn't know existed,' Liberati said.

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