COTS creates challenge

Army faces a network of mixed operating systems with off-the-shelf tech

The Defense Department has adopted open-source software and operating systems for some of its projects. But most of the military — like most of the world — uses Microsoft operating systems.

For example, the Army’s Future Combat Systems will rely on a Red Hat version of Linux called the Systems-of-Systems Common Operating Environment (SOSCOE), but Windows underpins Blue Force Tracking, a military application that tracks the location of friendly forces.

“The most likely outcome is that we will have one network that has two environments,” said Col. Brian Donahue, director of the Army’s LandWarNet.

Donahue took part in a series of conferences convened in late 2007 and early 2008 by Gen. Richard Cody, vice chief of staff of the Army, to address that problem and others.

“We will have a Linux-based environment within the FCS portion of the network, and Windows will probably be the predominant element in the rest of it,” Donahue said.

That’s hardly an ideal approach, experts say. “Does Red Hat interoperate with Windows and Active Directory?” asked Paul Smith, Red Hat’s vice president of government sales operations. “Yes, we do, but not as cleanly and as easily [as] if they were openly documented.”

A field of heterogeneous operating systems causes headaches. Almost every version of Microsoft’s operating systems can be found in the military, and the Army only recently upgraded its Standard Army Maintenance System from MS-DOS to Windows XP. Maintaining old operating systems requires having someone on staff who is familiar with them.

Furthermore, those systems add complexity to the information technology environment and hamper the addition of new functions.

“I’m all for homogenous environments,” said Peter Amstutz, chief of network design at the Defense Contract Management Agency. “I believe if we could run everything on one operating system, it would help us a lot.”

But operating systems are not created equal. The Army decided to incorporate Red Hat based on its ability to integrate new functionality, Donahue said. “Linux just has more power to do payload integration.”

Linux is more modular, Smith said. Because its specifications are public, it is easier to create new applications for it. However, some software developers have complained privately that FCS lead systems integrator Boeing and SOSCOE co-developer Science Applications International Corp. have been less than forthcoming with SOSCOE documentation.

The “software package is available and required for all partners to use,” a Boeing spokesman said.

The face-off between Windows and Linux was foreseeable. However, FCS designers ultimately decided the conflict was less important than getting what they wanted from their operating system.

“The difficulty is derived from the operational capability we’re trying to create,” Donahue said. “It is the attempt to get to that operational end state that drove us to the technical challenge of differing operating systems.”

That type of decision has been repeated many times. When applications are developed, it makes sense to use a particular operating system. But those decisions perpetuate a complex environment because many applications won’t run on a new operating system, and money isn’t available to build or buy a replacement application.

Nevertheless, technological solutions exist. Computers can run emulations of old operating systems on new platforms, but Amstutz said he doesn’t recommend it. His agency considered that possibility and rejected it “primarily because of the complexity factor,” he said. Running a translating agent to emulate an old operating system on a new platform would necessitate support for old operating systems and require the organization to gain expertise in emulation, he added. Furthermore, if the operating system the emulator runs on changes, the whole system collapses.

“We said, ‘Maybe the gains aren’t that great to take that kind of risk,’ ” Amstutz said.

“My recommendation to IT managers would be to write everything to a standard operating system that the organization decides on,” he said. “Pick a point in time, and from that point forward, do everything in a standard way. Draw a box around the legacy stuff and support it as best you can. Hopefully, some of the business functionality will eventually migrate or be replaced through life cycle, and eventually you’ll get to the point where everything is the same.”

Meanwhile, DOD components are investigating how they might pare down operating system complexity. An Open Technology Roadmap Plan released in 2006 by DOD’s Office of Advanced Systems and Concepts states that a successful demonstration of open-technology development would usher in a new era in which standard “technology development processes, resources, tools and methods are applied by default when acquisition programs are built and implemented.”

More recently, the Navy has called for its IT environment to become consistently open.

“The days of proprietary technology must come to an end,” said Vice Adm. Mark Edwards, deputy chief of naval operations for communications at a conference in March. “We will no longer accept systems that couple hardware, software and data.”

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