DISA to overhaul DoD's voice, video, data services

Monday - 8/12/2013, 5:56am EDT

Jared Serbu reports.

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The Defense Information Systems Agency says it's in the midst of a major push to overhaul the technology it uses to move voice, video and data communications around the world, planning several upcoming contracts to move to a system of unified capabilities.

DISA says it's getting rid of communications channels that aren't integrated well, including many built primarily on a technology called time-division multiplexing that's getting harder and more expensive to maintain. The voice and video communications traffic that rides on those legacy circuits will converge onto a single "self-healing" network infrastructure, with most DoD communications carried over Internet Protocol-based technology.

"We've been talking about everything-over-IP for years. Those services are here now," said Cindy Moran, DISA's director of network services. "We're rolling them out to try to eliminate legacy. We need quality of service, we need to be able to guarantee and assure service the same way we did with TDM. That's really where we're working with unified capabilities to go forward."

The agency's plan for unified communications calls for all that traffic, both classified and unclassified, to be guarded under a single security architecture with a common user authentication scheme. And at its annual forecast to industry at the agency's headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., DISA told vendors Friday it doesn't just want to transform the underlying technology it uses — it wants to change the user experience of military members, civilians and contractors, making communications easier and more productive.

"We're looking at enhancing the awareness of the presence of our users, so you have a suite of things where as things pop up on your screen, you can see if people are in the office or not, you can forward things from voice over to email so you can get messages in different ways, and things can follow you into your mobile device from your desktop so things can be seamless," said Jennifer Carter, DISA's acquisition executive. "Telephony integration would give us routing of calls that follow the user. And we have a lot of enterprise email users. We want to extend those capabilities into a unified messaging perspective, and make sure we've got that secure by enhancing identity management and the use of public-key infrastructure (PKI)."

Video services RFP in early 2014

In conjunction with the Army, DoD released a request for information in June asking vendors to provide information on the current state-of-the-art unified communications. It hasn't yet set a date for a contract award based on the answers it gets back, but the agency currently plans other solicitations designed to push it further down the path. DISA expects to issue one for video services early in the first quarter of fiscal 2014.

The agency expects another RFP for voice over IP by the end of next month, officials said.

Carter said upcoming solicitations will demand industry solutions to be easy to integrate into DoD's underlying architecture, and to be easy to use.

"We want it to be as easy as downloading apps," she said. "Nobody comes and trains us on it, we just go and use it. We want to start making the warfighter's user experience as easy as what we experience in our personal environment, so we can have different levels of service. You can have something there that's right there for you and very simple, and then we also have instances where we're careful to make sure people have the training and references that they need in a way that's mature and sophisticated to support users for the long term."

For the voice portion of unified capabilities, DISA wants to begin removing the familiar telephone set from users' desks and begin transitioning them to soft phones that run on PCs or even handheld devices. For its own workforce, the agency is in the middle of a pilot program to do just that: it'll expand to 2,000 DISA workers soon, with the goal of eventually eliminating traditional phones entirely.

Right at your fingertips

DISA says only about 1 percent of DoD users currently use soft phones for their voice calls. It's targeting 80 percent under the unified capabilities architecture. Moran told reporters the agency expects to see real cost savings — both in costs it will avoid from not purchasing phone equipment, and in maintenance and sustainment costs.

"It just becomes another application on your computer instead of handing you a suitcase of different devices to do work that can all be done on your computer," she said. "An IP telephone to sit on a desktop can cost me anywhere from $300-$500 depending on what features we get. A softphone is $50 from the same vendor. The savings to the department for that person who may not need a desktop telephone is significant, and we're trying to re-look everything we do to use software applications to still get those legacy services."

And if the shorter-term goal is to make a user's computer or tablet the center of all of his or her communications, the longer term vision, Carter said, is to move to a computing environment that's hosted in the cloud and accessible from any device.

"With your mobile devices and the desktop, once you start leveraging things in the cloud space, your information follows you wherever you go. Everything is right there at your fingertips, whether you're at the desktop or your mobile device," she said. "We really are looking for interoperable capabilities in an open, standardized environment."

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