Caution needed for new software process for travel system, says Defense official

Decision to take deliberate approach on "service software" puts a check on Defense's call to embrace the process.

A top Pentagon official overseeing the development of the troubled Defense Travel System indicated Wednesday that he would take a cautious approach to using a relatively new software development process despite recommendations from other Defense executives to rely on it.

Comment on this article in The Forum.At issue is service-oriented architecture, the practice of developing software that provides a specific service on a Web site (such as booking a reservation online) so they can be adopted by an agency or company when developing other programs that involve the same service. The goal is to cut down on software development costs and to provide interoperability between applications.

In March 2007, the Institute for Defense Analyses recommended that Defense use SOA to improve the troubled Defense Travel System, which Northrop Grumman Corp. has been developing since 1998. The institute said DTS, designed to be a one-stop Web site for the $8 billion annual Defense travel budget, could be improved with SOA by dividing its functionality into discrete services or slices. These include reservations, finance and bookings, which could be provided by private or government organizations as Web-enabled services.

But David Fisher, director of DoD's Business Transformation Agency, told the House Armed Services Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee that "because SOA is relatively untested within [Defense], and it is not without some risk at this juncture, we are adopting a phased approach across our enterprise-level IT portfolio."

Fisher said the transformation agency is conducting several pilots, which are designed to test and mitigate risk associated with the SOA infrastructure. DTS is part of this overall SOA pilot, he said, and the results of these pilot programs will help point to the next steps for widespread adoption of SOA.

Fisher's cautious remarks stand in marked contrast to the warm embrace of SOA 18 months ago by John Grimes, Defense chief information officer and assistant secretary of Defense for networks and information integration. In October 2006, Grimes told an industry conference that by using SOA for command and control systems, organizations can create a set of technical services they can rapidly deploy, and developers can write applications that call on those services, rather than building them from scratch for every system.

Fisher also discussed at the hearing improvements to DTS. He told lawmakers that the reservation refresh program added in February 2007 resulted in "significant enhancements" and that from a pure technical standpoint, additional incremental upgrades will continue to improve the travel system. Fisher said a pending software enhancement will improve DTS utility, introduce new functionality and build the framework for future incorporation of Web services.

The institute also recommended that Defense consider adding restricted, non-refundable airline tickets as options for travelers. DTS only allows employees to book reduced price, unrestricted tickets on fares based on the General Services Administration's city-pair program. the Defense should add restricted fares to the DTS menu, the institute said, because "they offer great potential to reduce travel costs."

Michael Dominguez, principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, told the panel that Defense has followed that recommendation and in coordination with GSA expects to draft policy options on restricted fares by September.

The institute also recommended giving travelers the ability to work with commercial travel offices to help with bookings. Dominguez said that such a help button will be installed on the DTS Web site by September. Defense also will add trip descriptions, as recommended by the institute, he said, including emergency travel on a temporary assignment, rest and recuperation, and family visitation.

Dominguez said the Army will complete its fielding of DTS by the end of fiscal 2009, as will the Air Force Reserve and Navy. The Air Force and Marines Corps have completed their implementation.

Despite changes in DTS over the past year, Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., chairman of the oversight subcommittee, said at the hearing that "we have anecdotal evidence that DTS is difficult and time- consuming to use for the average traveler, and it detracts from their primary duties. We also wonder about the cost effectiveness of the system versus hidden costs and opportunity costs."

Northrop Grumman declined to comment on points raised at the hearing.