Customs revamp makes business sense | GCN INTERVIEW | S.W. "Woody" HallJr., Customs' information gatekeeper

GCN: The Customs
Service’s information technology organization is going through an overhaul. How is
that going?


HALL: We are trying to realign the automation legacy systems along business process
lines. The IT organization is the result of years of evolution, and different parts of the
organization evolved in different directions.


On the applications side, for example, we were organized into a number of fairly
autonomous teams and the teams each handled one application. Multiple applications now
belong to the same process owner.


On the operations side of the house, we were aligned by product lines. We had a
mainframe group, an operating system group, a communications group and a LAN group. We had
a separate organization that did user support, such as the help desk and desktop PC
installation. So while I am very impressed with the technical quality of the organization,
we appear a bit fragmented to our customers.


We are doing three things with the reorganization. On the applications side, we are
grouping all of these applications into a single element that is aligned with the business
process, so we have a trade applications group, an enforcement applications group and an
administrative applications group. We’ve created a new staff, which we call an
interprocess applications group, to deal with the cross-cutting things. For example, we
have some pilots on the way with data warehousing.


We have also moved the training group out of the user support organization and moved it
into applications to align it with the folks who develop the systems.


We are also creating a new function, called a business process representative. They are
the mirror of the client reps. Business process reps will deal with our internal
customers. So if you are a process owner, you have one person to go to to check on the
status of things.


On the operations side, we are realigning along functional lines. We are going to put
all the people who do engineering in an engineering team.


Then I’m creating what I call a program management staff that will take a more
organizational view of how we do business. Its focus will be on creating standard
processes that we’ll all use to do business.


We are also taking a hard look at the Software Engineering Institute’s Capability
Maturity Model. By spring we will have decided how we want to set the goals. I would like
to set a goal that says by 2000 or 2001 we will be Level 3. [Level 5 is highest; Level 1
lowest.]


GCN: What level are you at
now?


HALL: We think we are a one plus. The last few months we’ve been talking to some
organizations ranked at Level 3 and Level 4. We are going to talk to the Air Force’s
Standard Systems Group in Montgomery, Ala., which is a Level 3.


GCN: What are some
important projects you have in the pipeline?


HALL: The major effort we’ve got on the drawing board is ACE, the Automated
Commercial Environment. The legacy system is ACS, the Automated Commercial System, and we
are trying to replace it with ACE.


ACS is about 14 to 15 years old. It is nearing the end of its life expectancy and
starting to bump against design limitations.


We do millions of transactions a day, and our performance standard is to process 90
percent of those transactions in three minutes or less, and frequently we do that in less
than 45 seconds.


Customs is very mainframe-oriented—IBM Corp., Hitachi Data Systems Corp. It is
pretty high-end iron.


GCN: How many ACS users
are there?


HALL: We have 39,000 direct users: 3,000 of those folks are trade users—brokers,
importers, shippers; 21,000 are Customs users, which include some contractors; and 15,000
other government users at agencies that have some responsibility for imports or law
enforcement.


GCN: Do you have a time
frame for replacing ACS with ACE?


HALL: We’re at the point where we are trying to figure out how to pay for it. We
originally had laid it out as a seven-year program. The total cost is in the
billion-dollar range. Interestingly enough, the trade community doesn’t want to wait
that long; they’d like to see it quicker.


So recently the Treasury Department has asked us to put together a three-year
deployment plan. The big rub is you can annualize it any way you want to slice it, but $1
billion divided by seven or $1 billion divided by three is more than $80 million dollars a
year.


GCN: How much money do you
have to spend on IT?


HALL: We’ve got $88 million a year. Although my base is $80 million, we happened
to have $8 million for ACE this year. We’re looking at a seven-year development
period for modernization, upgrading infrastructure and developing applications.


GCN: ACE wouldn’t pay
for itself by some other means? Is there no offset inherent in it?


HALL: Folks are still looking at it the old way—what we ought to do to save money.
It is doing two things really. It’s replacing a dying system. Plus, ACS is old
technology. A lot of it is custom-written Cobol that isn’t well documented.


We are trying to convince Treasury and Congress that this makes good sense from a
national context.


This isn’t going to offset $1 billion but will ensure minimal disruption to a
trillion dollars of commerce a year.


GCN: Customs has the
biggest database in the world from Computer Associates International Inc. Are you going to
move off that or convert the data into something newer?


HALL: We’re looking real hard at moving off of that, primarily because we are the
biggest user in the world, and that makes us a little nervous.


GCN: What type of system
are you looking at?


HALL: The one we’re looking at real hard is IBM DB2.


GCN: It sounds like you
will be staying in the mainframe environment.


HALL: I always see big databases and big iron in our future. We would like something a
little more hybrid, like for desktop PC applications and smaller analytical applications
we could go toward client-server.


But we are also taking a look at whether it is time to move beyond a client-server
model to being more of a Web application model. Not that we are ready to use the Internet
per se. For example, we want to make more use of TCP/IP. Currently, we do a lot of
circuit-switched networks, and like everybody else we’re looking at asynchronous
transfer mode and packet switching.


GCN: How would you buy
such a system?


HALL: We are looking at seat management to see if it has have something to offer us.
The whole idea is to have better access to data, move it around faster, and reduce some of
the dependence and vulnerability of the big databases at the Customs data center in
Newington, Va.


We’re also looking at where we can get good value and buy what we need as a
service as opposed to buying a lot of bits and pieces and then services to engineer it,
install it and operate it.


GCN: What about year 2000?


HALL: Customs actually is doing a good job. We have remediated all of our
mission-critical systems. They have been modified and tested, and we are using a
commercially available software tool to go back and scan the code and kind of do a double
check.



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