Army readies new network standards

Thursday - 10/13/2011, 5:25am EDT

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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The Army says it's trying to modernize its IT network into a system that's more interoperable, and based on open standards.

That will mean a new set of rules that industry will have to follow if it wants the Army to buy their products.

Army officials say the rules won't be designed to make it harder for industry to build products for the service. In fact, they're intended to do the opposite. Leaders want to be able to buy more commercial IT products, and to do so more quickly.

Collapsing stovepipes

First though, they say they need a network that's based on existing open standards. The Army is in the process of choosing which standards they'll adopt, and they plan to publish them next year in a format they have dubbed the Integrated Network Baseline.

Maj. Gen. Jennifer Napper

The standards will be at the center of an overall Army effort to coalesce its often-disjointed and localized IT systems into a single, interoperable enterprise, said Maj. Gen. Jennifer Napper, commander of the Network Enterprise Technology Command, the Army organization in charge of building, operating and maintaining the service's networks.

"What we're working this year is collapsing down all those stovepipes of excellence, all the domains, those things that are barriers to communications and collaboration off of the network," Napper told a group of reporters at the Association of the U.S. Army's conference in Washington this week. "We're simplifying it, but making it still defendable."

Lives on the line

And having a reliable, standardized network isn't just a matter of having more effective workflow, said Brig. Gen. Charles Flynn. Flynn is currently the acting commander of the Army's Combined Arms Center. In 2006, he was the commander of a brigade combat team that had just deployed to Iraq.

Brig. Gen. Charles Flynn

"It was a good six months before I somewhat knew what I was doing with the network that I had," he said. "And I'm convinced — I hate to say this — that there were soldiers in my formation that were severely wounded or killed because of things I did not know about that tactical network. When something goes wrong with that network, it's frightening. At the other end of it, there's a young guy whose life is on the line."

To help solve that problem, the Army says it's building a construct that will have soldiers training on and using the same network and equipment at the home posts, camps and stations that they do while at war.

Much of the trial-and-error work that's informing that process is happening at Fort Bliss, Texas, the site of a huge exercise the Army calls the "Network Integration Evaluation. A 3,000-soldier brigade combat team is dedicated to the twice-a-year exercise, deploying across a range the size of Connecticut to simulate real-world battle conditions.

Since the exercise also includes a real-world Army network, the NIE also lets commanders help fix real-world network problems, said Col. John Morrison, director of the Army LandWarNet/Battle Command.

Col. John Morrison

"Before, if we wanted to fix a problem with the theatre network, the only place we could fix it was downrange," he said. "We have now replicated that theatre network at Fort Bliss, so that theatre, who's engaged in the fight, can throw that problem over the fence and we can assist with it. But more importantly, everything that goes to theatre from here on out will go through Fort Bliss, so we make sure we integrate it the right way, both technically and operationally, before we push it downrange. Absolutely key. We are fundamentally changing the way we are going to integrate, test and deliver network capability. It is that simple."

Catching up with tech cycle

The Network Integration Evaluation also is helping the Army develop the Integrated Network Baseline. The guide will be the cornerstone for what Army IT leaders say will be a single, open standards-based network that gives industry predictability when it comes to designing products it wants to sell the service.

Lt. Gen Susan Lawrence, the Army's chief information officer, said it will allow the Army to start catching up with the technology cycle.

Lt. Gen. Susan Lawrence

"What we cannot afford to do is to continue to turn the network upside down every time we want to bring in the latest technology," she said. "So what this integrated network baseline's going to do is set the technical standards, inform industry as they do their research and development that if you need to communicate on this network, here are the technical standards you have to meet. We're not going to try to dictate what you need on your computing environment, we're just saying here are the technical standards you need to use to exchange information."

Vendors who want to bring new products for the Army to evaluate at the NIE will have to make sure those products follow the open standards the service will adopt.

In preparation for the evaluation, the Army decides what gaps it has in its technology capabilities and which ones it needs to fill most urgently. Then, it issues a request for information to industry, asking what solutions they have

The Army got 100 white papers back from their latest RFI, officials said.

The Army then chooses which proposals it wants to evaluate, with vendors supplying the products. If they pass muster at the NIE's real-world evaluation, the Army can choose to do further, more formal testing or put them through a rapid acquisition process if the process is needed to fill an urgent gap.

The most important part of the process, according to Lt. Gen. William Phillips, director of the Army Acquisition Corps, is that equipment gets into the hands of soldiers before it's sent to the field. That's a radically new idea for the Army, he said.

"The value you get back from that is what I would call priceless," he said. "When you put things in the hands of soldiers, nothing bad is going to happen, even if they say, 'I got it, I used it, and I don't like it.' Why would I waste a dollar of taxpayer money on a program that soldiers aren't going to use? We might seek to terminate a program if it has no value for soldiers, and we should not connect that to the network."

At the current network integration event, the Army is evaluating 47 systems and testing two more under the supervision of nearly 50 different program managers and program executive officers.

No choice but to work together

Morrison said another value of the NIE construct is that it forces people who have traditionally been in different corners and at different phases of the Army acquisition process to come together, literally in one place, at Fort Bliss.

"They've got no choice but to start working together," he said. "I've got the requirements guys. I've got the acquisition guys. I've got the testers and I've got the programmers. But at the center of that is an operational formation with commanders and soldiers in it that are informing all four of those folks on what right looks like. That's the real power of what we're doing. It's a great forcing function. You couple that with what our fiscal environment is about to be, and it just makes it that much more attractive to make sure we buy things smartly."

The Army hopes the end result is that new technology gets in the hands of soldiers early and often, in acquisition cycles as short as six months. Phillips said that might mean settling for and buying solutions that only meet 80 percent of what the Army believes its requirements are at a given time, and then making incremental improvements.

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