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Customized collaboration

News Analysis
Apr 28, 20035 mins
Collaboration SoftwareData CenterSmall and Medium Business

Navy unit replaces outdated database with Web-based system that gives users control of information.

By its very nature, the U.S. Navy is infused with units that think and act in an established and tactical way, which might not be the best environment for rolling out new software.

But it was in that atmosphere that the Navy’s Tactical Information Technology Integration Program Office (TacIT IPO) rolled out Web-based collaboration software to create its Secure Information Management Environment (SIME). The program management system supports two missile programs that are a collaborative effort among 112 organizations. The software provides threaded discussions, document sharing, workflow, chat and instant messaging.

TacIT IPO deployed the software nearly three years ago to replace an aging and costly database-collaboration system that had limited sharing capabilities and required users to funnel new documents through a centralized administrator for posting.

While TacIT IPO can’t reveal what it spent to deploy the system, the total of cost ownership is lower than the previous system, which required more applications and administrative overhead.

TacIT IPO, which provides IT solutions to a variety of Navy offices, has just completed Department of Defense security certification of SIME, which is built on SiteScape’s Forum software running on Netscape Web Server software and serving nearly 3,000 users. Now TacIT IPO is actively recruiting other units of the Navy and branches of the military to adopt its model of Web-based program management.

“The Navy is recognizing that a lot of these business practices that have occurred for years and years have not changed and they want to be more up-to-date with the way work is done,” says Jeffrey Thompson, technical services director for TacIT IPO. “Today, if you are going to be in the Navy and running on Navy networks, you are going to be Web-enabled, but you still run into outfits resistant to that change.”

The first order of business for TacIT IPO was to replace its government off-the-shelf (GOTS) software with commercial off-the-shelf software from SiteScape. GOTS is homegrown software that is notoriously difficult to manage, maintain and modify, Thompson says.

TacIT IPO took on the challenge of switching systems by customizing SiteScape Forum to closely mimic the look and feel of GOTS software to minimize retraining, and then hooking users with new collaboration features.

“We elected to do the implementation this way so that when the end users came in to work on Monday after the migration, they would not have ‘shell shock’ from a new system they were not familiar with,” says Sandy Grove, information services director for TacIT IPO.

With SIME, users can input and update the data, eliminating a bottleneck of the original software. The new system also added individual teamwork areas, workflow, more detailed action item consolidation/input, in-line CAD viewing and e-meetings.

The Navy also chose SiteScape because the vendor’s browser-based client integrates with the Defense Department’s public-key infrastructure model for security, which provides certificate-based single sign-on. The integration has been a blessing because TacIT IPO does not have to provide or maintain the security infrastructure, Thompson says.

Another challenge for TacIT IPO was working within the Navy/Marine Corp. Internet (NMCI), an entity established as part of a federal project to standardize desktops, servers and network connectivity. Although not a part of NMCI, TacIT IPO is required to incorporate NMCI’s standards as part of SIME, which means SIME’s desktop client had to be a Microsoft or Netscape browser and SiteScape had to support mandated ports and protocols.

NMCI also mandates Web-based infrastructure, which was a plus because it ensured SIME could traverse firewalls within the military and those of outside contractors. “NMCI puts an infrastructure in place that we don’t have to build; we just ride on top of it,” says Phillip Butch, program manager of TacIT IPO.

With the regulations met and the infrastructure in place, TacIT IPO had three people working three months with SiteScape engineers to craft the interface and methodology behind the system. The software was rolled out over a weekend.

Today, three technical staff members and three help desk workers maintain SIME. Twice a year, TacIT IPO brings roughly 20 of SIME’s power users in for a roundtable discussion about needed upgrades. The first year the round table requested 40 modifications, but as of late last month that number was down to one.

“One of the challenges had been keeping up with the user demands, but now the system is maturing,” Thompson says. “This is truly a user-driven tool, and they are the ones that make the changes.”

The users have produced one significant add-on module called Tactical Calendar, Action-item and Meeting Management, which fulfills the Defense Department’s critical program management requirements because it gives officers a high-level view of which projects are on-track and which managers are accountable for those efforts.

IT maintains the Netscape Web server that supports SiteScape Forum and five Microsoft SQL Server databases that house supporting documents, discussion threads and other data. The entire platform runs on Windows 2000 and NT.

The staff also maintains a Netscape Directory Server authentication, a Netscape Messaging Server for e-mail notifications and a Veritas back-up server that can restore full system function in less than four hours.

“For a lot of people in the [Defense Department] and Navy, becoming Web-enabled is a challenge,” Thompson says. “But we have already met those challenges. The big thing now is to make other organizations understand that there is a better way to do business and have them want to make a change, and that really has been hard for us.”