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An Electronic Records Archives (ERA) Update

"Mark my words, ERA is going to change the world as we know it."
- John W. Carlin, Archivist of the United States


One of the most critical issues facing the Federal Government in the 21st century is the challenge of record-keeping. Record-keeping issues are critical for us at the National Archives and Records Administration because we hold in trust for the American people the records of all three branches of our Government, from the Declaration of Independence to the military service records of our nation's veterans to the certificates validating the votes of the Electoral College. And what makes our job so challenging is that we are responsible for preserving electronic records and making them accessible to the public. We are responsible for these records forever.

Thanks to technology that's now a part of our daily lives, Federal records today come in an amazing variety of electronic formats. Keeping them safe was an easy job when we just had ASCII files and databases. Now we are faced with very complicated and diverse range of electronic documents such as records from geographic information systems, web pages, image files, email with attachments, computer-assisted design drawings, and more. Companies have been extremely successful at developing new information technology and record formats for creating, using and accessing information. Much less attention has been paid to solutions for preserving and accessing electronic records for future generations.

It is the goal and mission of the National Archives to provide the citizens of the United States ready access to the essential records of the United States Government. NARA's success in this mission has lead NARA to search for viable solutions. NARA cannot do this alone. And now, thanks to support from the Administration and the Congress, years of research and development, and our partnerships with other Federal agencies, state and local governments, universities, other national archives, international consortiums, and the private sector, we are on the brink of creating the Electronic Records Archives.

What is the Electronic Records Archives?

The Electronic Records Archives (ERA) is NARA's strategic response to the electronic records challenge. NARA's strategic plan challenges the agency to "build a practical, affordable, automated system for tracking and using records throughout their lifecycle" and to "change our own records lifecycle work processes to minimize and simplify routine scheduling requirements and support more effectively and efficiently the needs of our customers."

ERA will give us the means to preserve and provide sustained access to the Federal Government's electronic records of continuing value, and to provide economical storage and retrieval services for electronic records that remain under the legal control of the originating agencies. The goal of the ERA program is to enable NARA to preserve and provide access to any type of electronic record created anywhere in the Federal Government. ERA, as NARA's strategic response, will provide a comprehensive, systematic, and dynamic means of preserving and providing continuing access to authentic electronic records over time.

Although there are many challenges ahead, ERA will provide NARA with the capability to preserve Government electronic records even as they continue to grow in volume, complexity, and diversity. ERA will utilize new technologies to preserve, manage, and provide sustained access to electronic records. NARA will develop standards for transferring new types of records to NARA, ensuring the records are authentically preserved and accessible once they are transferred, and NARA will continue to support new technologies in order to meet the full end-to-end requirements for ERA.

Benefits of the Electronic Records Archives

The ERA system will allow us to transcend both space and time, ensuring that electronic records created today are still accessible by our great grandchildren. ERA will enable NARA to fulfill its mission, and will be of direct value to other Federal agencies. ERA will enable NARA to improve its services to other agencies, and make it easier for agencies, the Congress, and the Administration to transfer electronic records to NARA. ERA will pursue advances in technology, and we are working closely with our partners to ensure that this technology is evolvable, scaleable and extensible. ERA will be available for use by state and local governments, the private sector, and other institutions to meet their needs to preserve electronic records over time.

E-commerce, e-Government, manufacturing, research, education, and cultural activities are all hampered by technological obsolescence. ERA is attempting to preserve electronic records independent of the hardware and software that created them. Developments in technology make it easier, faster and less expensive to produce, use and share information, but they threaten the survival of information needed in business and other activities. The ERA system will be a catalyst to the development of innovative ways that any institution can use to carry digital information into the future as easily as they can send it around the world today.

2004 ERA Milestones and Accomplishments

August 2004, NARA awarded two contracts for the systems analysis and design efforts to Harris Corporation and to the Lockheed Martin Corporation. The base year is a limited competition during which the contractors will compete for the award of the Development Option which will actually build the Electronic Records Archives. In 2005, NARA will select one contractor and award the contract option to proceed with development of the system.

Other significant 2004 accomplishments included:

  • NARA received Congressional budget signed by the President for ERA funding to support the award of two contracts to produce competing designs for the system.
  • NARA published the ERA Requirements Document, ERA Legacy Transition Plan, ERA Life Cycle, and Enterprise Architecture to set guidelines for potential bidders to evaluate in order to understand the scope and complexity of building the ERA system for NARA.
  • After issuing the Request for Proposal, NARA awarded two base year contracts for the Systems Analysis and Design Phase (SA&D) of the ERA system.
  • The ERA Program implemented a detailed work breakdown structure outlining the program's tasks and an Earned Valued Management System tool to track time spent working on each task. These tools are used to track staff and program performance.
  • The ERA Program completed the hiring of experts needed to manage the program start-up and SA&D initiatives. Now NARA is working to hire additional staff in preparation for system development and implementation activities.

The ERA Acquisition Approach

NARA's incremental acquisition approach to ERA consists of a fixed-price base contract period for the design of the ERA system, followed by five system development increments. The base contract period began on August 16, 2004, and will run for one year. The competition between Lockheed Martin and Harris will provide NARA insight on how each contractor handles the complex challenges of designing and building ERA. The base year will end with a selection of one development contractor being awarded the first option to develop ERA. This follows five years of intensive study and research by the National Archives into the possibilities, requirements and approaches to the design and implementation. At the conclusion of the base contract period, Harris and Lockheed Martin will present a system design and working prototype that demonstrates their designs in action; NARA will down select to one contractor who has provided the best value to the government, the best design, and the best team to proceed with developing the ERA system.

During the five subsequent increments, ERA system development will continue, with each increment building upon the functionality of the previous one. The ERA system is scheduled to reach Initial Operating Capability (IOC) in FY 2007, providing end-to-end functionality for managing, preserving, and providing on-line access to NARA's electronic records.

NARA will add more capacity, capability, and functionality as well as enhancements to existing features, all the while reflecting lessons learned in earlier stages of the development. The ERA system is scheduled to reach Full Operating Capability (FOC) offering users a variety of system services in FY 2011

Related Research Activities

In response to its fundamental charge as the nation's record keeper, NARA has established unprecedented relationships in the national defense and security communities to ensure ERA's electronic holdings remain secure, safe and authentic.

NARA has established a Virtual Archives Laboratory (VAL) to accelerate collaborative research and shared learning among research partners including the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC), and the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS), the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL), Georgia Tech Research Institute, NARA staff, and other federal contributors to design and evaluate both an architecture and supporting software suites enabling a Federated Persistent Archives (FPA) that can address the requirements for large scale, long term archiving of electronic records.

NARA's "transcontinental" persistent archives research prototype is currently exercising over two million computer files of test electronic records collections in tests and evaluations of persistent archives prototypes at the University of Maryland, the San Diego Supercomputer Center, and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. It is up and running as confirmation of the continuing value of research to serve as the catalyst for innovation in the context of continuing technology change and as a mitigation strategy against technology risks to the ERA program. As part of NARA's continuing collaboration with the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has joined NARA as a research partner this year, expanding the persistent archives infrastructure research to include the acclaimed expertise and capabilities of the "DSpace" Program. As confirmation of the continuing synergy in ERA sponsored research, Georgia Tech Research Institute (NARA's long-time Army Research Lab collaborator), has also joined in the NSF-supported persistent archives research.

ERA will use the VAL as an environment where people can do research on electronic records issues. The research at NARA focuses on developing the attributes of a persistent system that will continue to operate robustly over a long period of time and is primarily concerned with the issues of scalability, extensibility, and evolvability. In keeping with these aims, the VAL provides a safe, secure environment suitable for testing the prototypes of persistent archives applications and systems.

One of the current projects being tested in the VAL is a prototype system that leverages the SDSC's Storage Resource Broker (SRB) technology, (a middleware application that uses grid and metadata technologies to transparently manage data), MCAT metadata catalog, and InQ (InQuisitor) technology to manage NARA-designated test electronic records collections. The system makes the storage and retrieval of the data stored at these locations transparent to users. One of the key features of the SRB is that it is designed to be scalable, modular, and infrastructure independent. Utilizing these technologies, ERA research has set up a prototype system that runs at NARA, SDSC, and UMIACS. Over the course of the first phase of this initiative, several terabytes of data collections are being ingested, registered, and replicated among the three sites over high speed connections.

NARA has also joined NASA, NIST, the US Army, and the National Nuclear Security Administration as a government contributor to the federal/private sector academic PDES Inc. Consortium (an international industry/government consortium accelerating the development and implementation of ISO 10303, commonly known as STEP [STandard for the Exchange of Product model data]) for the long-term retention of electronic records of engineering processes. Similarly, NARA has joined the Office for the Secretary of Defense, Sandia National Laboratories, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the U.S. Navy's Naval Undersea Warfare Center to build upon and contribute to very rapid developments being made in interoperability among proprietary software by the federal-private sector supported Object Management Group consortium.

NARA continues to support the InterPARES II project. This multidisciplinary research, headquartered at the University of British Columbia, Canada, brings together researchers and graduate students from 14 nations. The project is conducting case studies and related investigations in the preservation of digital records in order to create interactive, dynamic, and experiential applications of computer technology in government, science and the arts.

Additional Information

Stay abreast of ERA progress and get answers to your questions about the program through the following sources:

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