Delays in IT upgrades were OK, Customs says

The Customs Service's systems infrastructure modernization is five years behind
schedule because of planning and programming delays, Customs officials said.


Customs began migrating from its Automated Commercial System to the newer Automated
Commercial Environment in 1994. The service also started designing new systems to simplify
import-export procedures that same year.


"What we were trying to do was provide business functionality but also move toward
a different technical approach," said Charlie Armstrong, acting chief technical
adviser in Custom's Office of Information Technology.


But the two-track approach made it difficult for the IT staff to develop systems that
could interface with the service's IBM Corp. and Hitachi Data Systems Corp. mainframes,
Customs officials said.


"We have had a lot of problems designing object-oriented programs, which could not
be done on the old Cobol," Armstrong said.


Customs uses IBM 9000 Series and Hitachi Skyline mainframes at its data center in
Newington, Va., where the service processes import and export data. The mainframes, which
run MVS, house the Customs data in a CA-Datacom/DB relational database management system
from Computer Associates International Inc.


Armstrong said Customs' delays were acceptable because the service first had to define
the kinds of services it would provide the public before building the systems.


"In order to have known two or three years ago what our infrastructure had to look
like, we would have had to fully define our business requirements," Armstrong said.


"What we were trying to do is avoid the criticisms the IRS is getting now because
they went out and defined an infrastructure and built systems before they defined their
business requirements," he said.


The IT staff is building its systems now that Customs has defined the services it wants
to provide, Armstrong said.


For instance, Customs faced new challenges in 1993 when Congress ratified the North
American Free Trade Agreement.


Customs had to modernize border systems to meet the new trade requirements.


Customs has started testing its National Customs Automation Program at border posts in
Michigan and Texas as one of the first systems under ACE.


So far, the service has spent about $12 million on software development for NCAP and
has asked Congress for another $8 million for next year, Armstrong said.


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