FBI's New Sentinel System: Exclusive Look

Mar 30, 2012 (07:03 AM EDT)

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Six years and $450 million into the project, the FBI's Sentinel case management system appears to be almost ready for deployment. Sentinel aims to replace a hodgepodge of digital and paper processes with purely digital workflows, helping FBI agents collaborate and "connect the dots" on investigations. The question now is how well the problem-plagued system will live up to those expectations.

FBI CIO Chad Fulgham demonstrated Sentinel for InformationWeek on March 28, the first time the agency has shown its new case management system to an outsider. Fulgham, who announced this week that he's leaving the bureau on April 13 to return to the private sector, described Sentinel as leap-ahead technology compared with the 17-year-old Automated Case Support (ACS) system it's about to replace.

"This isn't just a case management system. It's a great platform to grow on," Fulgham said during the demo at FBI headquarters. The agency's IT team plans to move other apps over to Sentinel, giving them a similar look and feel on the same underlying hardware.

The FBI awarded the original contract for the case management system to Lockheed Martin in 2006, but an impatient Fulgham, who was hired in 2008 to get the project on track, decided to bring it in house in September 2010. Since then, the agency has been using agile development to push the frequently delayed project across the finish line. The FBI's agile team creates a software build every two weeks, and the pre-launch system is now running Build 33. The agency is working on Build 36, comprised mainly of features that weren't part of the original RFP. Fulgham says the software is essentially done.

The FBI recently tested the system with 300 agents, who were brought in to its offices in Atlanta, Denver, and Newark, N.J., for a crash course, which included creating case files in a mock scenario. On a scale from 1 to 10, the users rated the system an 8.5, Fulgham said, which he considers a high mark from a hard-to-please user base.

To get to this point, the agency was forced to upgrade Sentinel's computer hardware. In a test last fall, the system bogged down and crashed, the result of inadequate processing power. So the FBI bought three powerful Oracle Exadata appliances--one for production, another for backup, and a third for development and testing. In a 5,000-user stress test of the system, Sentinel consumed only one tenth of 1% of its processing capacity, Fulgham said. Going forward, performance won't be an issue, he said.

Sentinel Demo

How does Sentinel work? I watched as Fulgham signed on from his desk. The user dashboard loosely resembles Microsoft Outlook, with a similar color scheme, navigation panel on the left, and drop-down folders and menus. The dashboard includes a "My Work" area, where agents can pull up case files and create new ones.

The case file template includes a variety of required fields, and a green check mark designates those that have been completed. If the user tries to advance to the next step without completing all fields, a red asterisk flags the missing information.

Other PC-like features include auto populating of text, notifications, and a comments field. The app also has an integrated calendar that can be synced with the user's Outlook calendar. Data related to an individual in the system is condensed into a mini-profile, similar to a contact card in Outlook.

Sentinel's indexing tool creates a record of key words and numbers, making it possible to search for terms relevant to one case and potentially find connections to others. Indexed metadata is color coded--addresses in green, names in red, for example--for easy navigation.

Security, privacy, and governance measures are incorporated in several ways. Agents can choose from a drop-down menu of legal considerations that may be relevant to a case. They can collaborate on case files, track revisions, and co-sign documents, and there's an audit trail of activity. "It's an electronic system of record with digital signatures that can go to court," Fulgham said.

A "preview" function creates a PDF version of a file for review by the user. When that file is ready to be shared, Sentinel provides a drop-down menu for routing it to the appropriate department or manager. Routing is determined by roles-based permissions, ensuring that files are available only to authorized personnel.

[ This administration is embracing technology in a big way. Read White House Shares $200 Million Big Data Plan. ]

Sentinel does more than case management. It can be used to create other kinds of standard documents, such as correspondence to be shared outside of the FBI. It will be used primarily by agents and intelligence analysts, but all of the agency's 35,000 employees are potential users, Fulgham said.

My impression of Sentinel is that its user interface, influenced by consumer apps, looks intuitive enough that PC-savvy users would have no problem coming up to speed. The caveat is that the system I witnessed was a kick-the-tires test environment, not the live app. The system must be tested more rigorously, and agents will have to move existing case files from the mainframe-based ACS into the new system.

In other words, things could still go wrong, and skeptics expect they will. "Mark my words, FBI will fail again," writes one commenter on, in response to the news of Fulgham's pending departure. (There's no word yet on where he will be working next.)

The official word from the FBI is that the system will be launched "in the summer." Fulgham expressed confidence that Sentinel will not only work as advertised, but even come in a few million dollars under its $451 million budget. But if there are any last-minute glitches, Fulgham won't be around to fix them. Let's hope he's not needed.

John Foley is editor of InformationWeek Government.

To find out more about John Foley, please visit his page.

As federal agencies embrace devices and apps to meet employee demand, the White House seeks one comprehensive mobile strategy. Also in the new Going Mobile issue of InformationWeek Government: Find out how the National Security Agency is developing technologies to make commercial devices suitable for intelligence work. (Free registration required.)