The U.S. agency responsible for customs and border protection has suffered from an unreliable infrastructure and network downtimes but already is seeing benefits from a fledgling move to cloud computing. Those benefits include greater reliability and efficiency and lower costs.
Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP’s) priorities include moving the agency to cloud computing and adopting greater use of mobile devices. The CBP Cloud Computing Environment (C3E) moves the agency away from a number of stovepipe platforms. “In the past, we’ve run about every kind of platform that’s out there. We are a large IBM mainframe legacy shop. We use a lot of AIX Unix and also Solaris Unix, so we’ve even got different flavors of Unix out there, and then obviously, big Windows farms,” reveals Charlie Armstrong, CBP chief information officer and assistant commissioner for the office of information and technology. “This new environment that we’re moving to collapses a lot of that down into a single environment and loses all of the mainframe, and it gets us out of building environments from scratch.”
Armstrong describes CBP as being in the early stages of its move to the cloud, but the agency already is seeing benefits, he says. He compares creating a computing environment to building cars. “Building an environment with yesterday’s approach was like going to the car dealership, buying all the parts and having to put the car together yourself. Now, what we’re trying to do is to buy a fully integrated product that allows us to stand up environments quicker and also improve performance,” he explains.
Other benefits of cloud computing include enhancing the ability to determine which applications are using what resources. As a result, the agency can determine what it is spending on each mission set as well as increase processing speed. “Where we used to have some queries that would run in six or seven days, they now run in seconds. Because of that, we’re running more and more queries because the machines are more available,” he says. “We think we’ll be able to reduce some of our support costs because we won’t have to have different expertise managing different environments.”
Furthermore, the agency will be able to take advantage of more open technologies as they become available, which should further drive down costs. In early October, CBP finished moving its email servers to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) cloud environment, modernizing the email system and cutting costs. Now, the agency seeks to move back-office applications to the department’s cloud.
Modernizing the CBP infrastructure has been a daunting challenge. The decaying infrastructure has caused serious network outages that can impede the mission. The DHS Inspector General’s Office reported in June that “... systems availability challenges exist, due in part to aging infrastructure. Also, interoperability and functionality of the technology infrastructure have not been sufficient to support CBP mission activities fully. As a result, CBP employees have created workarounds or employed alternative solutions, which may hinder CBP’s ability to accomplish its mission and ensure officer safety.”
The report recommended the “chief information officer provide needed resources for enterprise architecture activities, ensure compliance with the information technology acquisition review process, develop a funding strategy for the replacement of outdated infrastructure and reassess the existing requirements and technology insertion processes to address challenges in the field.”
“We concurred with the report,” Armstrong relates. As an agency, over the past 10 years, we’ve been really focused on delivering new functionality and not doing some of these modernization initiatives—and for good reason—we’ve had to stay out in front of the terrorist threat and expanding mission capability. A year ago, if there was something keeping me awake at night, it was the reliability of the infrastructure and whether we would be able to sustain it going forward,” he adds.
While the legacy infrastructure posed fairly predictable problems, some challenges came out of the blue. The agency took an unexpected hit when Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged much of the northeastern United States in October, damaged critical equipment in New Jersey and New York. “We sustained damage to our radiation detection equipment, so we had less than a week to get about 28 or 29 radiation monitors repaired, recalibrated and/or replaced. We had a team of experts, both from the government and from some of our contract support, working around the clock to make sure that when the ports opened back up for commercial traffic, we were ready to start processing cargo,” Armstrong reports.
Additionally, several locations lost communication capabilities entirely. “We were able to get them back up either on some satellite units or wireless units so at least they could start processing people or cargo again. It was pretty devastating in terms of the destruction that the seawater and debris did to a lot of our equipment and networks,” he adds.
In his dual-hatted role, Armstrong ultimately is responsible for software development, infrastructure services and support and tactical communications, as well as for information technology modernization. He also oversees the laboratory system and research and development functions, which includes fixed and mobile laboratories.
“More than any other agency that I’ve worked with, our agency really, really relies on information technology, applied technology and science to get our frontline mission done. If you were to take any of that away from our officers, it would be difficult for them to operate,” Armstrong says. “The marriage of that CIO function and that scientific function is working well because it’s all information for us, and being able to bring that out and exploit it is key to making sure our officers have the right information at their fingertips.”
CBP has arguably the most complex and varied missions in the U.S. government. It is tasked with keeping terrorists and their weapons out of the country. The agency’s responsibilities also include apprehending individuals attempting illegal immigration; stemming the flow of illegal drugs and other contraband; protecting agricultural and economic interests from harmful pests and diseases; defending American businesses from intellectual property theft; regulating and facilitating international trade; collecting import duties; and enforcing trade laws.
To aid in the agency’s varied missions, CBP has eight science laboratories nationwide. The labs have been used to examine imported merchandise for regulation compliance. Tasks could include testing steel quality or tearing apart shoes to ensure they are made of the proper materials.
That has been the traditional mission. Over the past several years, however, the laboratories have begun to focus more on forensics. Lab personnel may test the DNA of illegal immigrants and the DNA of imported shrimp to ensure they originated in the country claimed.
CBP has established a number of satellite laboratories near the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico, and it has mobile laboratories with a limited amount of equipment that allows personnel to swab for narcotics or to assist in radiation detection. “We have physicists embedded in our laboratories so that when our officers get a radiation alert, we have experts to help identify the isotope and determine whether the material is admissible [into the country]or not,” Armstrong explains. “If it’s kitty litter or ceramic tile, it’s probably going to come on in. If it’s steel that has been contaminated with enriched plutonium, we probably won’t let that kind of cargo come in.”
The laboratories recently assisted in a famous intellectual property case between technology two behemoths, and Armstrong foresees a greater role in similar cases in the future. “Going forward, I believe we’re going to play a little bigger role in intellectual property rights. We did get involved a little bit in the court case between Samsung and Apple. Our laboratories are able to break products apart and figure out what technologies are being used within a product and determine whether it is real or counterfeit,” he states. “We work really closely with the manufacturers of those products to ensure they are not knockoffs.”
Providing mobile communications also is a high priority. “The department is rolling out virtualized desktops in its data centers, and we’re hoping to leverage that for mobility and then to be able to get away from having a lot of desktops and laptops and going to tablets and other kinds of mobile devices. That will allow a good amount of our workforce to become more mobile and to have data at their fingertips. That will work well, we think, at our seaports and our airports. We really see mobility as a game changer for us.”
He offers that mobile communications would be less useful to border patrol agents operating in remote locations, but DHS and CBP are trying to address some of the challenges it has faced in providing interoperable communications to border patrol agents and other first responders. “We operate at a lot of locations where there are more rattlesnakes than cell towers. We have a program that’s looking at the next generation of tactical communications. The next steps would be to take advantage of broadband,” Armstrong states, referring to the DHS Tactical Communications Network program.
Armstrong reveals that his office is working with the DHS Science and Technology Directorate on some broad agency announcements for pilot programs that seek to merge voice, data and video in a land mobile radio environment and to improve availability and interoperability. “Interoperability is key from an officer safety standpoint and being able to respond to emerging threats and disasters,” he adds. “Our goal is probably a three-year time frame to move to a next-generation land mobile radio.”
The agency also is taking steps to move toward a more agile acquisition process. The first priority has been to train and certify the work force. In addition, CBP is updating much of its policies and processes, which were written around traditional life-cycle development methodologies. Furthermore, the agency also has improved its governance process. “We’ve been working with the department to ensure we have proper checks and balances in place without creating a bureaucratic nightmare that slows down acquisition,” Armstrong offers.