Customs cargo system delayed again

The Australian Customs Service will again hold over again the introduction of its controversial Integrated Cargo System (ICS) and will move imminently to amend binding legislation in Parliament that would have seen IT vendors severely punished if the project failed to meet its "go live" deadline of Juy 21 2004.

A spokesman for Customs and Justice Minister Senator Chris Ellison told Computerworld that "It is prudent to allow for additional time for the system's introduction. [Customs] therefore intends to move an amendment to the Customs Legislation Amendment Bill (No 2) 2003 that would enable an extension to the transition period as a contingency measure."

The move comes against the background of a revolt from the trading and transport industry users and software developers after Customs released to industry two tranches of ICS code deemed so immature and incomplete they were not even worthy of alpha test status.

ICS is a cornerstone of Customs' massive Cargo Management Re-engineering (CMR) project. This was intended to replace the export and brokerage industry-developed EDI system Customs Connect with a Web-based model co-developed by Customs and a consortium of IT vendors led by Computer Associates. The project aims to facilitate all aspects of Customs involvement in the import and export process including declarations and GST transactions collected at port.

Further releases of ICS beta code to industry from Customs were halted after a dossier of serious user complaints about the quality and stability of ICS code to Customs was published in Computerworld on October 6. Since then, Customs has ordered its consortium of outsourced developers to stabilise the current release of ICS R2 (export transactions) system before releasing any further ICS code to industry.

The delay is certain to impact the ICS R3 (import transactions) system release to industry while code glitches, dysfunctional business rules and PKI certificate issues are resolved. While the release of the export system code has been far from painless, users and Customs concur that the import side of the ICS is a vastly more complex undertaking - with far greater risks and consequences should it fall over.

Trading and transport industry insiders are hailing the delay of the ICS as a victory for commonsense, arguing any further attempts to force unfinished code onto users would have created a software disaster area with the potential to bring international trade with Australia to an unceremonious halt.

Managing director of Eagle Datamation International (EDI), Richard White, whose software firm has been forced to endure a series of half-baked ICS releases from Customs, is one developer not shedding any tears.

"It's been frustrating getting an adequate deployment strategy, and deployment is where this thing [has the potential] to fail. You can deliver technology and get it right on the day, but you have to do an awful lot of background work with training, regression and acceptance testing, getting users to move from their test platforms to production platforms. It's an enormous undertaking. It has to be done in series, it just can't be done in parallel," White told Computerworld.

"[The delay] gives Customs, developers and end users the flexibility to take up the system and get it right - rather than being forced into a big-bang release which would almost certainly cause service delivery failures. It's a very positive development," White said.

Veteran software developer for a range of ICS clients, Geoff Phillips said that Customs had to re-learn how to communicate with those cutting code in the industries ICS will service, adding that every delay increased the cost burden that developers were forced to carry.

Sources within airlines and shipping companies were also clearly relieved Customs is to allow some breathing space, saying any stated delay was vastly preferable to "toughing it out on the fly".

"[Customs] has known internally for a while they've been trying stare down an iceberg. It's just bloody semantics as to when they called it an iceberg. It's always been pretty obvious either the go-live date would change - or it would change the minister. This stuff has the potential to make the wharfies dispute look like a tea party," the source said.

EDI's Richard White hopes that eventually, all the pain will pay-off.

"You can't deliver software for user acceptance tests when you haven’t got it working yourself. No one should underestimate the enormous quantum of this change from the imports side. Imports is where everyone is scared witless. CMR, particularly the imports declaration system - once it is implemented smoothly, will be of enormous benefit.

"There are improvements in the supply chain that will be substantial. It will never be nice, because it's one of those horrible change processes and it's hard for people to cope with because people have been working with a stable system for 25 years. Business process re-engineering around CMR is dramatically large," White said.

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