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Paradox of the day: Secret agent man and open source solutions

Okay, I have a funny story — and a compelling one.

There I was, sitting in the second row, alone in the small conference room, waiting for a customer panel to begin at Red Hat’s summit on open source solutions last week. The five panelists arrived early as well, shook hands with each other, found themselves at a loss for words and readily took their seats on their stools, staring straight ahead, maybe 10 feet away.

Well, this is awkward, I thought.

With nine long minutes to go before the start, I decided to break the ice and approach the panelists, introduce myself and exchange cards. Imagine my horror when the first panelist I approached, a man in a blue suit, appeared not to have a card on him. I raced back to my briefcase to retrieve several of my own, handed one to him and to two other panelists, along with a pen, and exchanged cards with the remaining two customers.

When the man in the blue suit was finished, he returned my card and inquired, “And who are you?” Embarrassed by the order of events, I told him about, its focus on the CIO’s point of view and my particular interest in cloud computing. I then collected the other cards and beat a path back to my seat.

Now, imagine my delight in the irony when I flipped over the card from the man in the blue suit to find the phone number and email of Jerome Bender, deputy assistant director at the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) division. It just goes to show that when you need to get information, sometimes you have to resort to persuasive measures — in this case, peer pressure from card-carrying panelists!

The compelling story is the one Bender told the room once the panel discussion got under way.

CJIS operates national law enforcement services across 18,000 agencies, and has about a million end users, Bender said. The National Crime Information Center in Clarksburg, W. Va., where CJIS is based, processes 8.5 million transactions a day. These include fingerprint processing (200,000 per day) and background checks (14.5 million per year).

The speed with which these transactions are processed against a database of 68 million people with criminal records is astounding: 15 seconds to 2 hours. “The fastest checks are in support of homeland security as people are coming across the border — 15 seconds,” Bender said.

Yet that isn’t what’s most compelling about Bender’s story. A rapidly increasing need for capacity drove CJIS to move two years ago from a proprietary hardware platform to commodity servers running Red Hat’s open source solutions, he said. In doing so, the organization saved about $80 million — while adding four times the capacity.

It takes a lot of horsepower to zip through a database of 68 million people. The FBI’s Next Generation Identification, or NGI, system, a cornerstone designed to enable CJIS to become a global biometrics leader, is deployed on 2,600 hosts in a highly redundant architecture that operates 24/7, 365 days a year.

There were challenges and successes in the FBI’s move to open source solutions, Bender admitted. “Security folks are not used to open source; it tends to be a challenge.” On the other hand, the decision to “do everything diskless and move onto a storage area network to minimize moving parts” has resulted in just one hardware failure over 2.5 years.

“Life-and-death stuff needs to be high-availability,” Bender said, and by using open source solutions, CJIS is providing that in a cost-effective service.

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