Navy sets course to better link shipboard networks

Solution lies in virtualizing hardware components and duplicating them in a common software environment

The Navy is taking aim at aging, incompatible computer systems, a problem throughout the Defense Department, through a $1 billion program to upgrade and consolidate the systems of nearly 200 ships and training sites.

Known as the Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services program, it is the service’s most ambitious spending for shipboard networks in more than a decade. It is a shift away from customized computers to an Internet-style setup in which individual workstations become secure portals that link to a common knowledge base.CANES will encompass each of the various command, control,communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance domains, in addition to a fifth C: combat systems.

“This is very exciting,” said Capt. Kevin Hooley, assistant chief of staff for readiness and training at Navy Cyber Forces in Virginia Beach,Va. “We’re finally understanding the value and speed of information in the 21st century."

“The Navy has made a strategic decision to take all their various disciplines of information from stovepiped communities and bring them into one, overarching community and aggregate their power," Hooley said. "Sigint,traditional intelligence, space cadre, communications, oceanographers and meteorologists — these are now being brought together. In the past,this was all done ad hoc.”

Although users of the Navy’s existing inventory of shipboard computer technology consider it to be effective, it also qualifies as a hodgepodge of disassociated capabilities developed in isolation. Each computer system comes with unique hardware and software configurations that are generally incompatible with other systems. Because the Navy can upgrade its floating networks only when ships are in port, the process of upgrading a major system can extend from months to years.

To Hooley, the solution lies in virtualizing the various pieces, parts and functions of hardware and duplicating them in a common baseline software environment. In this type of system, individual software applications perform functions that previously required dedicated, stand-alone machines.

“So instead of having a system of boxes and wires, we’ll have software and, to a lesser extent, firmware,” he added. “Any time we put anything over the air and onto a network, we increase our vulnerability— we have to know that going in."

“The technology is not the challenge — [rather it's] our ability to pace theintegration of the technology. One thing we’re continually doing as part of the integration process is to build in a set of layered defenses, from software and crypto to good personal practices.”

Interoperability remains the greatest problem, Hooley said.“The various applications and virtual systems must be coherent so they don’t defeat each other. This can only get worse as the amount of hardware and software for traditional C4ISR functions and now combat systems grows.”

COTS Is Key

At the outset, CANES is slated to replace five existing systems that form the foundation of the Navy’s computing power at sea. That includes the service’s main networking system, the Integrated Shipboard Network System, along with the service's primary tool for communicating with coalition partners, the Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System.

CANES technology also is expected to assume thefunctional roles of the Sensitive Compartmented Information, Video Information Exchange and Submarine Local Area Network programs.

To integrate those capabilities and add others, such as weapons targeting — the fifth C — the Navy is adopting a strategy that many Fortune 500 companies have embraced as part of a knowledge-centric approach in recent years.

The Navy and industry recognize that because knowledge is stored securely on the network instead of in a server or hard drive, they can purchase computers on the open market in quantity and from multiple suppliers.And, as hardware and software advance, they can quickly upgrade those machines without taking the system off-line.

That approach, known as commercial off the shelf (COTS), forms the basis of competing proposals from the two remaining CANES competitors:Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. The contractors lead teams that feature a number of small, relatively obscure, software design companies. The Navy eliminated two other bidders, Boeing and BAE Systems, in March and is expected to name a prime contractor in July 2011.

As a survivor of the first cut, a team led by Lockheed Martin MS2Tactical Systems in San Diego, Calif., was awarded a $15 million CANES development contract that could be worth as much as $937 million if the integrator wins the competition. Its partners include General Dynamics,ViaSat, Harris and American Systems.

Lockheed Martin declined to discuss its efforts. Its program could be in a state of flux following the recent departure of several senior staff members. Its rival, Northrop Grumman Space and Mission Systems, in Reston, Va., was eager to discuss its competing bid.

The Northrop Grumman team now has a $17 million CANES contract worth as much as $775 million if it gets the Navy’s go-ahead next summer. Its partners are IBM, Atlas Technologies, Beatty and Co. Computing, Juno Technologies, Syzygy Technologies, and CenterBeam.

“Nothing will have to be developed for CANES that doesn’t exist now,” said Mike Twyman, vice president of integrated command, control, communications and intelligence systems at Northrop Grumman’s Information Systems unit.

“The Navy has developed a ‘vendor-neutral’ specification, which allows competition for components through the life cycle of the program,” Twyman said. “Operating system issues go away because we’recreating an environment that can host any of them.”

“The links between various classification levels are handled through mature cross-domain technologies, such as guards, that allow you to move data between different levels of security, coalition versus U.S.Navy, for example, on the same screen,” he said.

The core of the Northrop Grumman effort is an IBM product, high-speed blade server, and the latest virtualization software.

“This is where the miracle occurs,” Twyman said. “It isolates the application from the host software. This approach has been going on at DOD for several years. We’ve been doing it for [the Defense Information Systems Agency] on the Global Command and Control System-Joint."

“If an application crashes it doesn’t take the whole system with it," he said. "It also helps reduce system administrator time. If there’s a problem with the app, a backup virtual machine can be launched immediately.”

Server capacity isn’t an issue because extra space is available, Twyman said.

“With our approach, the Navy doesn’t have to rip out a rack to install a new processor — they can just add it,” he said. “Leveraging COTS technology against the custom technology that’s been used in the past is a much stronger position that reduces the total ownership cost.”

Reader Comments

Wed, Nov 17, 2010 Editor

Thanks for pointing that out. We've corrected it.

Wed, Nov 17, 2010

Wouldn't that be the "Defense Information Systems Agency", not the "Defense Systems Information Agency"?

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