Air Force wants its fingerprints on DoD's Joint Information Environment

Thursday - 5/15/2014, 4:33am EDT

Jared Serbu reports.

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The Air Force says it's jumping with both feet into the Defense Department's still-evolving Joint Information Environment.

Because the service just has gone through a major network consolidation of its own, it also thinks it's in a prime position to help dictate what JIE will look like a few years from now.

The Air Force is wrapping up its own years-long network reorganization, moving from a structure in which most IT functions were left up to the local discretion of the Air Force's major commands and into a new one called AFNET, in which the network is centrally managed and the Air Force's chief information officer wields much greater authority.

That effort started long before JIE, but service officials say the timing was fortuitous, because it allowed them to use AFNET as a stepping stone to the much broader DoDwide consolidation that's just now getting off the ground.

"Our Air Force JIE strategy aligns very closely with the initial capabilities document that's forthcoming from the Joint Staff, and we're very heavy participants in that document as well," said Lt. Col. James Bowen, who leads JIE planning within the Air Force CIO's office. "We want to be engaged at the DoD level so that the tasks and the solutions we're being driven toward are things that we find acceptable and that meet our requirements. Our ability to shape JIE is just as important as our ability to adopt JIE."

The Air Force's influence on DoD's network interoperability plan is already apparent in a few areas.

For example, the massive upgrades of IT backbones and gateways the Army and Air Force are now building, based on multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) routers and joint regional security stacks (JRSS), wasn't officially part of JIE's original blueprints. But the two services got the Pentagon's blessing, and DoD now plans to deploy those technologies worldwide as part of JIE.

Money and experience

To build that infrastructure, the Army is bringing the money ($175 million), and the Air Force is bringing the expertise, based on the network gateway consolidation it just went through under AFNET.

"We have the experience needed to stand that up. We learned a lot of lessons, and we have a lot of scar tissue from doing it," said Lt. Col. Paul Williams, who leads the Air Force's JRSS team. "But we were able to achieve some pretty significant effects. With our gateways, we're blocking about 9 billion events per month in terms of malicious network scans and brute force attacks that can't come in anymore. We shrunk our attack surface by about 99 percent. It also got rid of noise on the inside, so that we can see and understand our network traffic better. It was very encouraging for us in the Air Force to see this joint initiative that's going to provide those same capabilities to all of DoD."

The MPLS and JRSS effort helps the Air Force check some boxes on two of the five main categories JIE's governing officials have defined so far: network normalization and a single, departmentwide security architecture.

But Air Force officials believe they've also made significant progress against a third JIE emphasis area: data center consolidation, another artifact of the recent AFNET migration.

"We've been working on data center consolidation for the past four years under the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative. It was good guidance, 'Go out and close data centers,' but it was kind of open-ended," said Lt. Col. Michael Haddock, the chief of the Air Force's data center consolidation team. "I think JIE has closed that loop for us, because it's given us a very well-defined end state that we can shoot for with good definitions and data center hierarchies that tell us where we need to go with our consolidation efforts."

Under JIE, the Air Force has committed to closing 60 percent of its data centers based on a 2010 government inventory of the facilities, and Haddock said he thinks that's achievable.

While the definition of a "data center" is fuzzy, the Air Force officially has 440 on its roster now and already has tagged 143 for closure by 2016.

Enterprise or bust

Haddock said the pace of consolidation needs to increase, and the Air Force plans to make that happen by following one of the basic tenets of JIE. If an IT function can be provided at an enterprise level, that's where it belongs, and there's no room in the budget for local commands to come up with one-off solutions that duplicate one another.