NARA tackling records management in the cloud

Social media, cloud computing and many other leading edge technologies are causing the National Archives and Records Administration to step back to figure out their effect on the authentication, dissemination and accessibility of federal records.

For instance, NARA is adding the ability for researchers and others to offer comments and tag records through its Open Public Access site.

But when it comes to cloud computing, NARA still is trying to understand all the intricacies.

“One of biggest problems that is lurking out there that we have already experienced at the archives, but is lurking across the federal government and probably the world is: How do you transport data effectively when you have to do something like long term preservation and permanent public access to records?” said Mike Wash, NARA’s chief information officer and executive for information service. “The amount of data that has to be moved to the archives is overwhelming.”

Wash said the 2010 Census results are a perfect example of this challenge.

NARA must hold onto the 2010 records for 72 years before they can be released to the public, but how can they ensure those records are accessible and preserved as technology changes over time.

“The bigger issue that is certainly upon us is how do you receive 300 terabytes of data most effectively?” Wash said. “The most effective way of doing it today is you fork lift multiple storage racks of equipment on a truck or in the bay of a FedEx jet and move it to another location so it can become a part of a records center. That problem is looming. As more and more federal agencies are creating data, which are records, how do we effectively move that data into the records management process and into a permanent preservation process? That is cloud challenging sitting right in front of us. Instead of actually moving data physically, looking at how do you architect a storage infrastructure in the cloud so the movement of data is actually changing attributes associated with the data, the meta data associated with the records to identify this record in the federal cloud or one of the federated cloud is being moved into the custody of the National Archives.”

Wash said NARA is working with the CIO Council and others across government on how to solve this issue. He said it’s a challenge that must be addressed now as agencies are moving email and other record-making systems to the cloud.

“We have to think about how to [transfer data]. If we do it over an Ethernet connection, that will take a long time,” he said. “The other option is put the data in a truck, but that is costly and has other challenges. We’ve talked with the folks in the CIO Council and there is interest in pursuing it further. Our next step is to talk about solutions more seriously.”

In the meantime, NARA is looking at a similar issue internally. Wash said the archives is early on in developing an acquisition strategy for a new email system in the cloud. He said NARA doesn’t plan to issue a request for information or request for proposals in the near future.

Wash, who has been CIO at NARA since May, also is focusing how the technology and data is helping the agency meet its mission.

NARA has developed a data taxonomy, or set of standard attributes for each data record, but Wash wants to make sure the meta data also makes sense for the agency’s business requirements.

“That core meta data associated with records is the heart of the information systems for us to effectively manage our archives,” he said. “The more we can rally around a very clear understanding of the meta data requirements for our archival records, the more it’s going to benefit us as we start to execute management initiatives associated with improving the management and accessibility of those records.”

Part of the reason Wash can take on the meta data issue is NARA’s major program, the Electronic Records Archive (ERA), has moved into the operations and maintenance stage.

“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.”


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