Army aims for more speed, security with new IT network standards

Wednesday - 3/28/2012, 1:35pm EDT

Terry Edwards, director for System-of-Systems Engineering, Army acquisition organization

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(This article was originally posted on Feb. 2, 2012. The page was updated March 28, 2012 to include the audio interview with Terry Edwards.)

Over the past ten years of war, the military has been chasing a series of urgent IT needs to meet its ever-evolving missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some hastily-acquired individual projects have been successful, others less so. But the net result is a collection of systems that don't work well together, are inefficient to operate, and don't fit into an organized architecture.

The Army's answer to that problem is a concept called the Common Operating Environment (COE). The idea is to force the entire service to coalesce around a common set of industry-led standards that will guide the way the Army buys future technological capabilities, and how the Army develops its own projects. The Army chief information officer and acquisition head signed off on the basic framework for the COE idea in the fall of 2010. Last month, the Army published its way forward for actually putting commonality into practice with its COE implementation plan.

"This is a major effort for the Army," said Terry Edwards, the director of System-of-Systems integration for the Assistant Secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology (ASA-ALT). "It is going to enable us to fix interoperability, to fix agility of how we get capabilities to the warfighter, to put in foundations that are secure and hardened, and to build that while reducing our lifecycle costs. And for industry, it lets them provide capability to us faster."

But Edwards said the Army recognizes that it cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach to all things networked. The plan breaks the Army's efforts down into six separate categories, or "computing environments," with an Army program executive office holding responsibility for each. The environments include:

  • Real-time safety-critical systems
  • Sensors
  • Mobile handheld
  • Mounted systems
  • Command post systems
  • Cloud-based data center technologies

By 2013, the rubber of the COE will begin to meet the road. The implementation plan will start to require that any new software or services the Army buys or develops adheres to the new standards.

"This is going to be an iterative process, but you will see parts of it start to appear in the 2013 timeframe because in the (Army Force Generation) cycle, that's when we'll deploy the next set of new software to the field," Edwards said.

"You'll see components of the COE for each of the computing environments start to appear. Obviously, in some of the environments we'll be able to get there faster because they're emerging spaces. In others, it will take a little bit longer to finally converge to a common environment in that space."

An example of an environment that's expected to take longer to coalesce around standards is the Army's vehicle-mounted systems, since the service already has a large, scattered inventory of IT in that space that was acquired is a stovepiped fashion. In the mobile handheld space, on the other hand, the Army is just beginning to make investments, so it expects to see a common environment emerge fairly quickly.

In each category, however, the Army will enforce rules that govern what it's acquisition corps is permitted to buy and what the Army is allowed to develop internally.

"We'll put out guidance that says, if you're putting out applications in this space, for example for handhelds, you will use this foundation," Edwards said. Army officials said the implementation plan is designed to continually evolve and develop over time as new standards are introduced and adopted in the marketplace. Service officials vowed they would continually gather input from industry as the COE is implemented.

Edwards said the Army also is trying to design its environments so that they are interoperable, to the extent possible, with other systems in the broader DoD.

"We work very closely with the Marine Corps, because in a lot of cases they consume the same products that Army units consume," Edwards said. "But we're also trying to make sure that as we design these foundations, we are paying attention to what's happening elsewhere in DoD. There's work being done at the (Defense Information Systems Agency), for example, where they're building enterprise services that help interoperability between the services. So we're taking components of that architecture and bringing it down into the Army. So inherently, we're trying to build our systems so they're what I call ‘built joint'."

But Edwards said that doesn't mean industry can necessarily expect to see a common operating environment for the entire Defense Department anytime soon.

"But I think there's a potential that the work being done in the Army can influence some of the same thinking across some of the other services," he said.

(The interview with Edwards aired on Federal News Radio's On DoD radio program March 28, 2012. Listen to the full interview above.)

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