Marine Corps prepares to cut cord on NMCI

Friday - 5/31/2013, 5:47am EDT

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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Saturday is a big day in information technology for the Marine Corps: the service officially will transition from the privately-run Navy-Marine Corps Intranet that's been the backbone of its IT capability for the last dozen years and take control of its own network operations.

The transition is a part of the years-long, gradual wind-down of NMCI, which, for now, remains the federal government's largest outsourced IT program and the second largest computer network in the world — second only to the public Internet.

The Navy and Marine Corps are taking slightly separate paths in the post-NMCI world under a new construct called the Next Generation Enterprise Network (NGEN). Navy officials announced this week they expect to award a long-delayed contract to operate their network under NGEN by June 30. The Marines' portion of the network, however, will be government-owned and government-operated.

"The first of June will be a milestone date in the history of the Marine Corps," said Robert Scott Jack, the Marine Corps' deputy chief information officer. "We will once again have our hands on the stick, flying the network. We will take over the operation and defense of the Marine Corps Enterprise Network in total."

No noticeable changes expected

Officials say neither Navy nor Marine Corps users should notice any changes right away though. The services have spent the past several years buying back the physical and intellectual property that make up NMCI from HP, the company that inherited the contract when it bought EDS, which had owned and operated the network for more than 12 years. Officials say the new contract structure will give them more control and flexibility to modernize the network over time, but for the short term, it'll still look a lot like NMCI.

Robert Scott Jack, deputy chief information officer, Marine Corps

"I hope we never see June 1 recorded in the history of the Marine Corps. The measure of merit will be that you wake up on Saturday and there ain't nothing different," Jack said during AFCEA Northern Virginia's annual Navy IT day Wednesday, in Vienna, Va. "The network is alive, it's operational, it's meeting its mission requirements and you proceed on as if nothing had happened."

Once the Marine Corps take legal control of the network infrastructure, one of their first tasks will be to consolidate it with four other networks that were never brought under the NMCI umbrella, said Kevin Nally, the Marine Corps' CIO. Those existing stovepipes include the networks used by the Marine Corps Reserve, the service's recruiting command and its training and education command.

"We need to collapse these to save money," he said. "My brilliant engineers have mapped out, down to the switches, every piece of the Marine Corps Enterprise Network. They put the as-is on the top of a chart, and it took up three-quarters of my conference room, and the to-be was on the bottom. When you just look at that from a non-technical perspective, you just go, 'Wow, there's a lot less IT on the bottom than at the top.' To me, that means less labor and less IT that I have to buy."

The model for the JIE

Nally said the legwork to unify those networks will start next month. And with that detailed roadmap in hand, he said he's been arguing forcefully to U.S. Cyber Command and to the DoD chief information officer that the Marines' forthcoming enterprise network should form the basis for the Defense Department's much broader effort to unify its networks under a common, standards-based architecture: the Joint Information Environment.

And from Nally's perspective, DoD hasn't made much progress so far.

"We've all been working that effort for two years, and we're still at the stage of PowerPoint slides," he said. "There's nothing in 2014 or 2015 that budgets anything for this effort."

While JIE is not specifically budgeted, Nally said he's made the case to higher- ups in the joint environment that DoD's current cost estimate to implement the interoperable environment in Europe, its first testbed, is ill-defined and overly expensive at $6 billion, and doesn't even include several expensive cost drivers.

After seeing the Marine Corps' plan for its own network unification, he said he concluded it should serve as the foundation for DoD's overall approach.

"I was thinking this was a strategic win for us. When my folks briefed me on a Friday afternoon, I said I wanted to brief DoD CIO Teri Takai and [U.S. Cyber Command Commander] Keith Alexander right away. I said, 'This is the frickin' JIE. It's right here,'" he said. "We briefed her for like an hour and a half, and she said, 'That's it.' General Alexander said, 'That's it.' I've given them all of the thick technical documents that say this is how you transition a network and this is how you unify a network. We're working really hard right now with the Defense Information Systems Agency right now to say this is how you move this thing forward."

At the same time, the Marines are offloading some of the work they currently pay DISA to do, finding the defense IT agency's rates to be higher than they'd like.

Nally said the Marine Corps is moving nine of its programs out of DISA's computing centers and into its own cloud computing environment, Marine Corps Enterprise Information Technology Services (MCEITS). That data center is housed in Kansas City, Mo., and the Marines recently committed to lawmakers that it will stay there through at least 2017. The Marines also are declining to move to DISA's service for enterprise email, saying they can continue to handle email themselves for almost half of what DISA charges.

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