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DISA keeps pace with net-centric milestones

Col. Deidre Briggs, military deputy, program executive office for GIG Enterprise Services

The Defense Information Systems Agency’s Net-Centric Enterprise Services program is approaching an important milestone. This month, the Strategic Command, the operational sponsor for NCES, is expected to certify the initial operational capability (IOC) of a portion of the program’s services.

Defense Systems contributing editor Sean Gallagher spoke with Air Force Col. Deidre Briggs, military deputy at the Program Executive Office for Global Information Grid Enterprise Services at DISA, about the program's progress.

DS: What’s the current status of NCES, and what’s important about the upcoming IOC certification?

Briggs: We're all pretty excited and elated in the progress right now. The program has walked a long path to get where it is today. They got through the important Milestone C decision in June 2008. We have just wrapped up a rigorous testing event on several of our capabilities and went to present information to our milestone decision authority to support going to IOC during July.

Our testing has shown us a lot of important things that we need to do to our product. It did show that four of the capabilities meet the requirements of IOC. For the other capabilities, it gave us some good feedback on things we need to go back and work on.

To date, 10 of our 11 capabilities that are considered part of the NCES program are actually in use by people all across [the Defense Department]. So when we meet IOC, it means that these particular capabilities meet all the requirements that were in the key performance parameters (KPPs).

Some of those parameters are very high, and at this moment, they're beyond the levels that the DOD requires. But we still need to show the capabilities and that we can meet those KPPs. For instance, right now we have about 212,000 using our chat tools — both of our chat tools on the classified and unclassified environment. But to meet our KPP for chat, we actually have to show more users than that.

Another example is user access, also called the portal. To meet the KPP, we have to show that 750,000 DOD users could use the portal. Right now, we do have over 2 million using it, but the large majority are Army accounts. Stratcom wants 750,000 accounts that we would consider [Defense Knowledge Online] accounts. Right now, we only have about 118,000 accounts that are not Army, so we're not able to demonstrate that we can meet the 750,000. But it's in use and meeting the needs of DOD customers.

We need to encourage more users to get on the system. Right now, as many people as we can attract are there. As you know, there are other agencies and services that have portals and are very happy with using their portals. We just need to attract more customers to the DKO.

For our customers, IOC will be almost transparent. As I stated before, almost all our capabilities are in use. The one not being used by anyone right now is mediation. But our other capabilities are in use throughout the DOD at different levels.

The testing that we just did gave us great feedback on what operational testers and users thought, and we're already working to make improvements on our capabilities based on the feedback from that first testing. And that testing put four of our capabilities at IOC-ready — full deployment decision readiness — that a milestone decision authority would feel comfortable saying these capabilities are ready to go IOC. And while it's transparent to our customers, it's an important part of the acquisition process because it allows you to start working on the scaling.

DS: Where do you see NCES evolving after it reaches that point?

Briggs: We will meet IOC sometime during July. We are optimistic about that based on our testing and our meetings with our milestone decision authority [in May]. We will continue because this tested a certain amount of our capabilities. We will start another test in probably the late summer [or] early fall that will put some of our other capabilities under test.

The capabilities that will be tested then will be content discovery, people discovery, service discovery and our service security. And we'll go through the same rigorous testing that we just went through with our first four capabilities. And we will evaluate where we are with those services and see if they meet the KPPs and the requirements of the test plan and, more importantly, the requirements of the operational sponsor, who analyzes it on behalf of all of the operational users. The operational sponsor is Stratcom, so they'll speak for all the warfighters. It may be a little test, and then there will be another test in the fall for enterprise service management and messaging.

In parallel with the testing events, we're taking feedback from the test we just did, and evaluating what the testers and operational users said, and doing incremental upgrades on our product where possible to be responsive to what the users said.

For example, we have a metadata registry where users can go and register their data so that it can be looked at or reused by a particular community of interest or shared among communities of interest. When we would have the person, whoever the publisher of the data is, go to the Web site and publish it, they never knew where they were in the publishing process — like if you're downloading something, it tells you how long it would take.

Most people who would use this would be savvy users. But when they went to register data, if they went away, they didn’t know where they were in the process. So as a result of the feedback, we're changing the system. … If you’re a data publisher, it could be you're not authorized to be the final [person who approves] the data, [so] it might go to an approval authority, and they review and hit Publish. But we never said where it was, that your info has gone up to an approval authority. So we're changing that as a direct result of feedback from testing.

[Previously], you did not go to your computer and enter your data yourself. You had to get a systems administrator. You would contact one of our net-centric publishers and tell them what you needed to put in there, and they would put it in on your behalf. Now…we're changing that, based on testing and customer feedback [so] that you, the data publisher, can sit down at your computer and enter everything yourself. They'll be working on that also over the next six months.

Almost all these services are being used. Over the next six months, we'll make these services better for customers. And there's still some extensive testing to come to evaluate the services more, get operational user feedback on the services and make them better for all the users.

DS: Have you had any initial feedback from users on where they're getting the most value out of the services?

Briggs: I think it’s probably our collaboration services, whether it be our Web conferencing capability or the chat collaboration capability. Because those have been out the longest, they're probably the most visible to an ordinary user like I would be. Some of our other services are for more technical people like most of us. We'd want to go to our chat tools because we're in different locations. Our Web conference collaboration and chat tools are where most people are getting the most value.

Next is user access, or our portal. Not that everyone is dying to use DKO, but DKO is very powerful and allows people to do things that will help them collaborate. At present in DISA and a lot of other organizations, user access is not just a portal to the Web. There's a place on DKO where you can store documents. So I could put a document up there right now that's too large for me to e-mail. Our DISA net system wouldn’t let me e-mail an 8M file, but I can post it [on DKO] and share a link.

Another one that is not for every customer but is delivering a lot of value to our warfighting customers in southwest Asia is our content delivery. We've partnered with managed service providers because the NCES idea was to get commercial products first.

Almost everyone in DOD is using some of our discovery and security services now.

DS: Has there been an interest in content discovery?

Briggs: Content discovery just went under our vigorous testing, and we withdrew it [from IOC consideration]. We are doing some more work on it and are going to re-evaluate it in the summer because there was some feedback from testers. It looks like a good tool to me, but our testing on this one found users didn’t feel we gave complete instructions on how to use it. There’s some other work we're doing to enhance the service. But I can tell you that we have testimonies that we use as part of our briefing.

Content discovery is in use. It allows a lot of things to be federated, but it's probably more helpful on [the Secret IP Router Network], where it allows someone to cross several places on their search. And we are working to make it better for the customers.

DS: What do you think the barriers are to wider adoption of NCES by the individual services?

Briggs: I think a lot of it is cultural. Back in the old days when e-mail came out, a lot of people resisted using e-mail. Right now, people are still fighting over whether social media and social networking have value in the DOD.

Is there a more elegant way? Any way you can get people to come together and collaborate is important. I think in NCES we are the baby step, the foundation — whether it's your basic chat, your basic conferencing, a place for people to store things that a lot of people can get at. That was the first step of achieving net centricity.

Right now, we're working through that cultural discussion of how we use the opportunity of social media while mitigating the risk of putting too much or inappropriate information in some places. Still,…this chat tool really increases productivity because it helps you get your mission done. Not everybody feels like that — they haven't seen the value to themselves. That’s what we need to help them see, how it can help their business and their mission.

The next iteration of how we deploy enterprise services will be more agile, and we'll be able to respond even quicker. And that's something that will help get services out quicker that are more responsive, for example, to getting the warfighter in the field services that meet the latest messaging standard.

DS: Do you see NCES playing a greater role at the tactical edge?

Briggs: There's a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is we're doing it now, and we're going to do more of it. The long answer is NCES was developed more than four years ago. It had a lot of aspects to the program that in the reality of a major acquisition program you had to re-evaluate. So what they decided was that NCES would focus on core customers that were mainly connected to the GIG. And then the next increment would focus more on the tactical edge.

In reality, at this moment, we have changed some of our services where they can more easily extend to the tactical edge. An example of this is in our chat tool. We chose [the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol], a standard chat on Button Two and one that is able to go down into the tactical edge and interface with what they're using in the field.

We are still working out technical issues with that, but it does work today. It can work better, and we have a follow-on acquisition that definitely rolls in what we need to get all the way to the point of the spear. Every day — in Africom, Afghanistan and Iraq — they are using Web conferencing.

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