NARA hires IBM to move records system into next phase

Monday - 10/3/2011, 5:43am EDT

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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Six years in development, the Electronic Records Archive system is finished — at least for now.

The National Archives and Records Administration completed the fifth phase of development Sept. 30 and awarded a new contract for the operations and maintenance (O&M) phase of the program.

NARA has hired IBM under a 10-year, $240 million contract, said Mike Wash, NARA's chief information officer, in an interview with Federal News Radio.

IBM replaces Lockheed Martin, which NARA hired in 2005 under a $308 million contract. According to the IT Dashboard, NARA has spent $383 million, which is $5.6 million more than it planned as of Aug. 3, over the life of the contract.

"We have moved into the operations and maintenance phase. That is a significant milestone for NARA," Wash said. "In the operations and maintenance mode, we will be keeping the system up and running and there also is an element of the O&M contract which is for corrective and adaptive activities, which will allow us in the world of dynamic information systems make corrections or minor adaptions of the system to continue to meet federal agency customer needs."

NARA decided last December to suspend any further development of ERA as of Sept. 30. NARA and the Office of Management and Budget decided to end this phase of the contract with Lockheed Martin earlier than expected to focus on getting agencies to use the current system's functionalities before adding new ones.

Wash said IBM will transition into the O&M phase over the next three months. But the transition is more than just a new contractor.

"We anticipate some complexity because we have to bring IBM up to speed on the system over the next several months," he said. "The ERA program is a very complex system that deals with a lot of different business processes associated with accepting records and transferring records into a system, and then making those records accessible and searchable. The complexity of those processes, which may not sound all that difficult, but in the scheme of across the federal government with the various types of data it becomes very complex."

Wash added IBM will have to become familiar with the system's architecture, the software code that supports the architecture and be prepared to keep it running. He said Big Blue also must be ready in the short term to begin enhancing the system as necessary.

NARA will improve the system through a series of task orders to IBM, Wash said. Among the first areas the agency will consider is improving the search capabilities for federal customers.

"There is a list of enhancements needed there to help with things that are very comprehensive like a new Supreme Court justice, and finding records associated with that," he said. "The tools that we can put in place and continue to evolve are the types of things that could be enhancements in that area."

Wash said search technology changes often, especially the way users can find information in large datasets.

NARA is collecting many of the future enhancements in a business-requirements document and will issue task orders when appropriate.

"There are enhancements we know that need to be made based off of early-adopter type of experiences, not necessarily problems," Wash said. "Just when you start using a new system, you realize 'Boy, it would be really nice if you could do this, or this.'"

NARA's decision to stop further ERA development came after a TechStat session with OMB showed after five years of development, few agencies were using the system's functionalities.

As a result of the TechStat session, OMB reduced ERA's budget by $215.5 million and ordered NARA to deliver functionality faster, to increase the usage of the system from 80 terabytes now to 122 terabytes, and move to modular development approach.

NARA is on track in meeting the new milestones that came from the TechStat session, Wash said, including bringing on 10 terabytes of data a quarter for 2011.

NARA also must make sure ERA can handle the level of use by every agency by the end of 2012.

NARA identified three large agencies a month to bring in to the system starting last March.

"Our progress has been really good. The agencies have been trained and for the most part have been using the system," he said. "We've been monitoring the amount of data in bytes transferred in a quarterly basis and reporting them out. The goal was 10 terabytes per quarter. We have successfully met or exceeded that transfer expectation for the last three quarters. We are right on track for what we had committed to in the TechStat for agency adoption and with the transfer of data."

In the next three to five years agencies will use ERA as part of their routine for submitting records for long term preservation and getting access to those records, he added.

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