DISA promises fixes to overwhelmed online conferencing system

Friday - 2/8/2013, 5:48am EST

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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The Defense Department's online meeting and collaboration system, overwhelmed by a sudden surge of use owing to various cancellations of face-to-face meetings throughout the military services, will be back up and running at full capacity next week, officials said.

The Defense Information Systems Agency, which runs Defense Connect Online as an enterprise IT service for the entire DoD, said it was caught off-guard by the spike in demand. DCO has seen steady growth since 2007, when DISA created it then as a somewhat-experimental offering.

But day-to-day usage among DCO's 800,000 registered users increased by more than 30 percent over the last several months as congressional scrutiny over federal employee gatherings and sudden travel cutbacks in anticipation of sequestration caused various DoD components to find alternative ways to offer training and handle routine meetings.

"We'd planned on expanding the capacity of the current system this summer, but the usage just skyrocketed over the last 90 days because of the budget and travel restrictions everybody knows about," said John Hale, DISA's chief of enterprise applications. "Right now, we have the ability to handle 4,000 users on the system at any one time, and it's a hard limit, so the 4,001st user is getting denied the ability to use the system."

DISA has been hurriedly adding more servers, cables and switches to the existing data centers, which make up DoD's private cloud in order to add capacity to DCO. It plans to flip the switch on that extra hardware capacity by Feb. 15, doubling the system's capacity to 8,000 users.

Long term to the cloud

That's the short-term fix. Eventually, DISA wants to migrate what's turned out to be a popular service into an IT architecture that's a lot easier to scale up when demand increases so that it can stay ahead of the demand curve.

Dr. Jennifer Carter, DISA's acquisition executive, said that could mean moving the service into a cloud hosted by a private-sector provider through DISA's new role as the Defense Department's cloud broker. The commercial offering would have to be approved through the federal government's new process for certifying the security of cloud service providers, FedRAMP.

"We want to establish the ability to leverage commercial cloud opportunities for more services and capabilities. We're continuing along that path, and we've developed security models to support that," she said. "As more vendor opportunities appear out there that have been FedRAMP-approved, there will be more opportunities for us to take advantage of commercial capabilities. So we're continuing to look at ways to open that up for a broad range of acquisition opportunities."

Until the fixes are in place, DISA said it estimates that during peak usage periods, roughly 4 percent of DCO's users are locked out or kicked out of the Web conferences. Those peaks tend to happen on Wednesdays and Thursdays when the military's combatant commands around the world hold regular meetings. In order to reserve computing capacity for those commanders, DISA has asked its own staff to resist using DCO until the problem is fixed.

Other parts of infrastructure not affected

Alfred Rivera, DISA's director of enterprise services, said all of the department's enterprise IT offerings have seen a surge in demand as online collaboration takes the place of canceled meetings. But because of the way they were architected, DoD hasn't suffered any performance problems with its other enterprise IT systems, such as enterprise email and the Defense Enterprise Portal Service (DEPS), DoD's implementation of Microsoft SharePoint.

"The initial design of enterprise email was to support a user base of 1.5 million, but we knew our objective was to eventually serve the entire Department of Defense," he said. "It's similar with DEPS. We built it in a pod-like structure, so every time we add another 200,000 users, we just simply add another component to the pod. That's minimized any challenges like we had with DCO."

DCO offers online collaboration and content sharing for both classified and unclassified content. DISA said the capacity problems were all on the unclassified system. The classified side of DCO, which occupies a separate hardware infrastructure and which commanders use for command and control of operations on a routine basis, does not appear to have been affected, officials said.

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