Wiring Up Warfighters

A tight tech budget puts pressure on Defense to sharpen its networking and communications strategies.

To keep military warfighters and civilian employees plugged in worldwide, Defense Department officials are rethinking how they acquire and manage computer networking and communications services. With only 3 percent growth projected in its technology budget in fiscal 2009, the department has no choice but to flatten infrastructure and adopt a shared services model, Defense IT analysts say.

At the Army, Chief Information Officer Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson is working to provide each soldier with a universal e-mail address, telephone number and remote file storage, accessible whether the soldier is stationed in the United States or deployed with an armored brigade in Iraq.

At first glance, creating what Sorenson describes as a "cell phone and BlackBerry experience" for 265,000 troops deployed in 80 countries seems like a huge investment for the Army, which has seen growth in its IT budget come to a standstill. The service requested a $7.7 billion budget for information technology in fiscal 2009, $28 million less than the previous year. But by using an enterprise approach to deliver IT services, he says, the Army can save 15 percent to 25 percent while improving its voice, video and data tools. The Army is developing a next-generation IT infrastructure to provide applications and data services on the latest iteration of its LandWarNet network. New regional network service centers the Army plans to start setting up this year sit at the core of this strategy to bring together intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, medical and logistics data from across the organization.

The Defense Information Systems Agency will use the same approach to connect users among all the military services and Defense agencies. It's what CIO John Garing calls "global plug-and-play service." The goal is to provide a computing environment where users give no more thought to how and where service is provided than they would to where electricity comes from.

This approach also cuts costs and speeds information delivery, he says, pointing to DISA's project to take over hosting of 4,000 Navy Web sites at a cost of $80 a month per site. The agency now can set up a Web site in a matter of hours, compared with days previously. Garing says DISA also has shrunk the number of Navy Web sites to about 2,000 and would like to drive Web hosting costs down to closely match that of commercial providers such as GoDaddy, which charges $3.99 a month. Just like an electric utility, DISA aims to provide "capacity on demand" through its data processing centers, says Garing, turning servers on when users require more computing power and off when they don't.

While the Army is considering how to leverage the services DISA provides, Sorensen views information delivery to the tactical warfighter as a mission that must be managed in-house. Gary Winkler, the Army's program executive officer for enterprise information systems, agrees, saying the service must be careful how it acquires technology to support the new enterprise architecture.

He says the Army does not plan to take the managed services approach of the Navy Marine Corps Intranet project. In 2000, the Navy awarded a contract to EDS to provide networked computing services to more than 700,000 users in the United States and Japan. In order to meet demands of users, particularly those who are deployed, the Army must keep its computer destiny in-house, Winkler says. "We have a bad history with managed services . . . they don't provide us with the operational flexibility we require," he adds.

When the NMCI contract ex-pires in September 2010, officials will replace it with the Next Generation Enterprise Network, which will have more direct Navy control and oversight, according to planning documents. Navy CIO Robert Carey says networks are a strategic asset in warfighting missions and require optimal control and flexibility. But he did not rule out a managed services approach, saying flexibility can be assured by properly setting requirements and performance parameters.

The Navy is working with industry to help shape NEXTGEN, which unlike NMCI will serve both sea- and shore-based users with voice, video and data services. The Navy had intended to bundle the Marine Corps Enterprise Network into NEXTGEN this spring, but Carey says the Marines want to pursue their own network strategy to ensure the demands of tactical users are met.

At the Air Force, information technology plans and projects are on hold for the next year as the new chief of staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz, conducts a top-down review of major initiatives, including the Air Force Cyber Command. In August, Schwartz halted efforts to stand up the Cyber Command, whose broad mission would include managing cyberwarfare operations, network systems and personnel. The Air Force did not respond request for interviews about the suspension.

Global plug-and-play has become Defense's theme for managing its IT budget in tight times, says John Slye, manager of federal industry analysis at INPUT, a research firm in Reston, Va. DISA stands to gain from the shared services model if it can deliver what it promises, according to Slye. "When you can provide a service at a very attractive price, people will vote with their feet," he says.

Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting, a federal IT consultant in Jenkin-town, Pa., says built-in flexibility to meet customer demand is essential for services- based architecture, whether that service is provided by DISA or a contractor. "With a managed service it's difficult to predict what a [military] customer will ask for tomorrow," he says, noting that contracts or agreements should be written to allow for quick response to changed requirements.

The move toward a departmentwide shared service environment will allow DISA to become the IT provider of choice for the next several years, says Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer of FedSources Inc., a McLean, Va.-based consulting firm. But DISA must ensure that the services it provides "are aggressively priced, so users don't grumble and then do it on their own," he adds.

DISA plans to provide traditional computing and network services as well as new tools, based on the market's best models, according to Garing and Chief Tech- nology Officer David Mihelcic. They are looking at adapting commercial technologies to Defense missions and applications, including the OnStar in-car navigation and remote diagnostic system from General Motors and the handheld computer used by United Parcel Service drivers.

No matter which direction the agency takes, officials aren't accepting the status quo anymore. "We need to be in a state of perpetual beta," Mihelcic says, quickly adopting and fielding new technologies. Garing says DISA can no longer afford to run five years behind the technology curve if it wants to uphold the global plug-and-play mantra.

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