Editor's Desk | Off the rails?

One of the unfortunate realities of big government information technology projects is their tendency to succumb to as many problems as the systems they were designed to replace.

There are many reasons ' and exceptions. But at the root of most IT project failures is a familiar pattern: a lack of disciplined adherence to proven design principles and an unwieldy management chain among government and contractor stakeholders.

It's too soon to tell for certain, but that's shaping up to be the case with a $500 million project called Railhead.

Railhead was intended to improve ' and eventually replace ' the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), the National Counterterrorism Center database that catalogues information about international terrorists. The project is among the largest and most expensive that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is funding.

Lockheed Martin built TIDE hurriedly in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Flaws in the data were compounded as contractors and government employees attempted to expand and enhance the database without following basic design rules. As a result, 295 of the 463 data tables in the system lacked documentation, according to the House Science and Technology Committee's Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee.

Initial plans called for replacing TIDE. But officials decided to build a new interface and convert the data using Extensible Markup Language.

XML has many advantages, but performance is not one of them. The large size of XML data files results in lengthy transmission times. That's a problem because the more than 30 networks that interact with the database require rapid search results. A new generation of efficient XML code could ease matters, but it would still require moving TIDE to newer Oracle database management software that supports Semantic Web standards.

Compounding matters were questions about the new system's ability to securely handle sensitive but unclassified data.

Costs and delays escalated, and a slew of software-testing failures suggested that the replacement system might have deeper flaws. Concerns came to a head in recent weeks, when the government fired most of the nearly 900 contractors working on the project.

Last month, the House Science and Technology Committee called for an investigation, raising concerns that the reliability of the entire database is now in question.
It all sounds sadly familiar.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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