Air Force deploys special team to fix HR technology systems

Virtually every organization on the planet suffers from frustrating IT glitches in its human resources department from time to time. But most of them aren’t managing pay and personnel functions for half a million people, and the outages don’t usually last for several hours at a time.

Both of those things are true of the Air Force.  So earlier this month, the 24th Air Force — the service’s cyber and network operations specialists — stood up a special mission team that will undertake an end-to-end examination of the complex web of both modern and legacy systems that make up the service’s personnel and pay infrastructure and what can be done to make it more reliable.

Each time a key link in the Air Force’s HR IT enterprise goes offline for a few hours, the service’s productivity losses are measured in man-years — not man-hours, said Bill Marion, the chief information officer for the Air Force headquarters’ manpower, personnel and services organization (A1).

“It hurts the whole promotion board process, it hurts the civilian hiring process,” Marion said at an annual Air Force IT conference hosted by AFCEA’s Northern Virginia chapter. “When we’re down for three hours and then, with the latency it takes us another 45 minutes to process each civilian hire, that has serious domino effects. So we’re laser-focused on this. The 24th is going to dive into our applications, the network, our configurations, any capabilities that are end-of-life. We need to root out any of the inefficiencies we have.”

Part of the issue is sheer complexity: To process service members’ and civilians’ pay and personnel transactions, the Air Force today uses 120 separate systems — 86 of which duplicate other ones that provide similar capabilities — at 213 sites around the world.

The disaggregated nature of those IT systems mean HR also is an extremely expensive and manpower-intensive business for the Air Force, costing $1.3 billion per year and requiring one HR specialist for every 22 airmen on the service’s payroll. And like many other systems throughout DoD, the hamhanded approaches many of the systems use to interact with other ones drastically complicates the congressional mandate to pass a financial audit.

For the last five years, the Air Force has had a plan to replace several dozen of its legacy HR systems with a commercially-based enterprise resource planning system it dubs Air Force Integrated Pay and Personnel System (AF-IPPS).

But the $570 million program missed its target to begin delivering capability by summer 2015 and is rated at “moderately high-risk” for failure, according to the latest data on the government’s IT Dashboard.

Marion said the Air Force is now reexamining its approach to AF-IPPS. He said officials are still committed to a commercial-off-the-shelf approach to modernizing its systems, but that it would be more appropriate to view AF-IPPS as a “strategy” rather than as a single system.

“It’s about building an entire ecosystem of lifecycle support for the HR world in a way that’s consistent, repeatable and agile,” he said.

To that end, Marion said the Air Force had taken several steps of late to simplify the network architecture that supports its HR data, to make its systems more self-service so that they don’t require as much professional support, and to get out of the business of hosting its own data centers as much as possible.

In August, the Air Force got the go-ahead to host sensitive data in a commercial cloud environment at what DoD defines as impact level four. Since then, it has become the first DoD component to transition “critical mission information” into a nongovernment cloud.

The project involves the Air Force’s existing myPers portal, which lets airmen handle some pay and benefits matters on a self-service basis.

“We are testing that application in the cloud on a live basis,” Marion said. “That’s huge for us, because who would have imagined that we could make that move within four months, move it to a continuity-of-operations and data recovery capability and do all of the development and testing within that time frame? We’ve still got a few critical steps to go because it’s the first time we’ve done this within the DoD, with new concepts like cloud access points and rules for email flows, but the core is in place. We see great benefits coming from it.”

The Air Force sees mobility as among those benefits. It’s already been working to create a service-oriented architecture that allows various app developers across the service to access functional databases based on their own particular mission demands; moving personnel data into properly-secured cloud environments should make it easier for service members and civilians to check their own records and deal with their own sensitive information as necessary.

“Cloud doesn’t just bring infrastructure improvements, it gives us a mobile front-end that we can leverage,” Marion said. “Without having to go through two years of development and integration pains every time we want to do something new, now we can use the cloud platform that hosts myPers and the mobility services that are already built into the commercial product to start to expose HR services to airmen, commanders and personnelists. Cloud is not just about cloud. It’s also about letting us become more agile.”

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