The third collaboration button

With contracts set to expire in 2010 for DISA’s two-button collaboration offering, officials at the Defense Information Systems Agency are laying the groundwork to develop a third collaboration platform that will incorporate and advance the most successful features of the current collaboration tools.

“The third button is the natural evolution of our collaboration offering,” said Rebecca Harris, director of the Global Information Grid (GIG) Enterprise Services Program Executive Office.

The existing setup of dual collaboration tools offers a variety of services, including Web-based conferencing; the ability to share documents, pictures and whiteboard diagrams; online chat; and other features as part of DISA’s Net-Centric Enterprise Services offering. The introduction of those tools marked a major shift in how DISA delivered technology to the military services. Instead of specifying and procuring the collaboration tools, a process that historically takes years from design to certification, DISA turned to industry to provide a platform as a service, which DISA would pay for based on use.

DISA ultimately elected to offer platforms from two different suppliers. One is from IBM, based on its Lotus Sametime software; the other is from Carahsoft, which uses Adobe Connect for conferencing and Jabber for instant messaging. The agency chose two services to accommodate different users, many of whom are in remote regions and have limited communications access and bandwidth.

The two-button approach also put competitive pressure on the suppliers to continue updating and improving the services without DISA needing to specify improvements, which speeds development cycles.

“One of the real takeaways [was] the way we use collaboration tools in DOD is different from the commercial world,” said Col. Brian Hermann, chief of the collaboration branch at the GIG Enterprise Services Program Executive Office. Users, for instance “really rely on the audio and video because they don’t get good phone service in many locations.” In other cases, where bandwidth is constrained, users had to rely heavily on audio or chat in conferences. That suggests streamlined versions of conference tools and new iterations of chat, such as Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol, will be needed going forward, Hermann said.

Although the two-button approach accelerated DISA’s learning curve, it made it harder for many users who had to adjust to different interfaces, Harris said. So the move to a single platform is expected to be an improvement. And it will be an opportunity to expand the ability for users to collaborate in a broader, unified communications model that could tie into the Defense Knowledge Online Web portal.

“What we’re finding is the need to federate chat,” Hermann said, so DOD users can collaborate with one another and others outside DOD. For instance, real-time collaboration activities are becoming increasingly important at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence regarding cybersecurity matters.

The clock is ticking for DISA to get the third button in place. The contract with IBM, the first of the two collaboration tool contract options, expires in February 2010, and the other expires in October 2010.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of Defense Systems from January 2009 to August 2010. He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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