Head of Defense technology agency aims for acquisition speed

The military can no longer afford to lumber its way through software acquisition, the recently appointed head of the Defense Information Systems Agency said last week.

DISA lies at the heart of the Pentagon's efforts to funnel more battlefield information down to combatants at the tactical level. Achieving that transformation requires innovative ways to integrate data, and DISA must become more nimble in procuring software solutions, said Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Croom, who assumed command of the agency in July.

Croom spoke at an event hosted by the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association International, a 31,000-member nonprofit group.

"Everything has to do [with] speed, and so does acquisition," Croom said. The agency will itself create less software. Instead, it will place greater emphasis on reusing technology made elsewhere within the military, or buying commercial off the shelf software, Croom said.

Existing software projects may not perfectly fit DISA requirements, but many can satisfy most needs and can be changed to meet unique needs after initial implementation. "I can field that 80 percent solution tomorrow," Croom said.

For example, DISA's portal for its Net-Centric Enterprise Services project - an effort to integrate and disperse data across all military services - will be a lightly modified version of the Army Knowledge Online portal. The DISA enterprise services portal should debut in January, Croom said.

DISA could adopt a similar attitude when acquiring software from the private sector, he added. "If we're buying commercial, why can't we do that in 60 days?" he asked.

Creating software in-house should be the option of last resort, Croom said.

DISA will also field a greater number of pilot implementation projects, Croom said. Pilots are comparatively easy to set up, and make a good testing ground for solutions that could be expanded to the entire operation, he said.

"If I like it, I'm going to scale that pilot," he said.

DISA is also adopting a service-oriented architecture, Croom said. Such an architecture establishes a common data environment across software applications and breaks complex tasks -- each individually called services - into tasks that can be handled by a series of small software applications.

This architecture is innovative, and is the future of DISA software development, but it's difficult to explain to top generals, Croom said, adding that he is searching for a description his technology-ignorant mother, or the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, could understand.

So far, he's settled for comparing it to an Internet travel reservation portal. Web sites like Travelocity.com integrate multiple streams of constantly changing data, but to layman users the information appears seamlessly stitched together. "They built it to standards that allow information to be shared," he said. This is what net-centric transformation aims to achieve.

To that end, DISA will finalize technology standards for a service-oriented architecture by late December. The standards are unlikely to please every software developer, but they are needed sooner rather than later, Croom said.

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