COMMENTARY

Army center gains ground on joint network operations

CERDEC's NetOps Interoperability Lab provides setting for testing and evaluating concepts

A Defense Department goal is the creation of a network operations (NetOps) capability that is "born joint" to increase interoperability among military services, said Dr. Cynthia Dion-Schwarz, director of Information Systems and Cybersecurity for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, during one of her visits to the Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center’s (CERDEC) Network Operations Interoperability lab.

Part of achieving this goal means providing a test bed that enables joint testing and evaluation of NetOps capabilities in a virtual environment, a task taken on by CERDEC’s NetOps lab team in its development of the Virtual Ad-hoc Network (VAN) test bed.

“Networks are inherently joint. There is no Army network; it’s a DOD network for the joint force. Spectrum is shared, networks are shared and information is shared,” Dion-Schwarz said.

NetOps demo

Initial research and development of VAN began in 2008 under Dion-Schwarz’ Network Communications Capability Program (NCCP), a science and technology program that was created to solve upcoming networking issues.

“The first problem we saw was an increasing number of types of networks that were going to be fielded to the tactical warfighter, and that introduces the problem of interoperability. If you’re sitting on one kind of network and you want to talk to your buddy sitting on another kind – how do you accomplish that?” Dion-Schwarz said. “The second problem we saw has to do with net-centric warfare. If you want to fight with the network, treat it as something that you’re going to fight with; that’s going to be an actual enabler.”

For Dion-Schwarz, NCCP would become a capstone program in creating joint NetOps both in encouraging interoperability among all services and in creating a first of its kind testing platform, or CERDEC’s VAN.

“I would say there is no test bed out there, nobody has a true NetOps test bed. So when you talk about NetOps, the way things are tested, they are tested very manually and they’re also tested very disparately—there's no interoperability,” said Rosie Bauer, NetOps branch chief.

“You’re creating your own net-centric warfare—a realistic scenario, because we don’t fight alone. So a realistic scenario where you have the Navy, Air Force and Army fighting, you’re really looking at how everything comes together and how applications perform over joint issues, which is realistic.”

The VAN test bed was developed in-house by CERDEC and allows multiple applications running on virtual nodes, or connection points, to send IP packets to each other via a simulated ad-hoc network. The technology does so by simulating different radio waveforms, replicating the bandwidths and time delays associated with each particular waveform.

“We are providing a test bed that can simulate satellite and radio communications that they would experience in the field. We are basically taking the field environment and putting it into a box and using that as a foundation for testing,” said Keith Whittaker, Space and Terrestrial Communications Directorate NetOps lab lead.

In addition to providing a universal platform to improve the networking disconnect between military services, the VAN will also help alleviate the costs associated with field testing.

“What we’re attempting to do is to build a developmental environment where people can try their NetOps ideas. You don’t have to run expensive field tests just to see if the darn thing works,” Dion-Schwarz said. “This allows you to run several different kinds of networks simultaneously, in order to see how things run. And that’s life. The real-life scenario is you’re going to have a lot of different kind of networks and a lot of different kinds of users and they all have to work together.”

While reducing the amount of large-scale field testing is one benefit, the VAN’s simulated environment will also be available for remote connection to all military services. CERDEC’s Navy counterparts in Washington, D.C., and San Diego, Calif., could connect through the Defense Research Engineering Network, a robust, high-capacity, low-latency nation-wide network that provides connectivity between and among the high performance computing (HPC) user sites, HPC Centers and other networks.

Leveraging similar work done on the Navy Research Lab’s Extended Mobile Ad-hoc Network Emulator (EMANE), Larry O’Ferrall, an electronics engineer for NRL, plans to coordinate with CERDEC to utilize the VAN to measure and monitor network management through its DREN connection.

“As the user, let’s face it, you’re hitting the return key a lot and nothing is happening – where is the problem? Is it in the app, is it in the server, is it in the network? Our tools tend to find that rather quickly,” O’Ferrall said. “So we’re looking to put our tools on the VAN and the EMANE so we can go to 100 nodes very rapidly and find out where our issues are. We’re working together so we’re both kind of on the same paths and there’s a lot of interconnection between the two.”

The hot-button topic of improving network management was also of interest to the Air Force Command and Control Integration Center’s Charlie Martin. Martin hopes to integrate some of the components used by the NetOps team on the touch table, like the System Center Operations Manager (SCOM), into the Air Force’s network management capabilities.

“I think that there are a lot of things that we can take from CERDEC’s side that support an integrated view into net management,” Martin said. “The systems they are developing with the touch table and the SCOM, those provide the visualization tool for the network management environment.”

Like the VAN, the touch table will help consolidate disparate NetOps tools that are currently being fielded, according to Giovanni Oddo, project leader for the NetOps Touch Table.

“In the field, there is a specific Soldier that monitors and works with specific tools. All of those tools are monitored independently and right now, there’s no way to bring them all together,” Oddo said. “We’re combining all of them on a single architecture that would monitor all of it and bring it on the table and, with the multitouch user interface; they can all collaborate with their independent tools and solve the problem.”

Although the touch table itself is not currently fielded, the SCOM is, which could make for an easier transition from the lab to the field.

“We’re using all off-the-shelf technology that’s currently fielded. We’re just using it in a way that enhances what these guys are doing now. So, this could actually be fielded,” Oddo said.

Enhancing and fielding NetOps capabilities is a key goal of NCCP and, according to Dion-Schwarz, collaboration among services and the VAN’s ability to expedite testing is a key part of that.

“What we care most deeply about is trying to field as quickly as possible, the best technology possible because we believe deeply that the American edge is technological innovation,” Dion-Schwarz said. “This kind of innovation will enable us to much more quickly test and then field really, really great capabilities.”

For O’Ferrall and Martin, fielding a product with assurance of its safety and security to operate in an environment where the Army, Air Force and Navy are present is what makes the collaborative-nature of the NCCP project significant.

“You get a lot of people together that have a lot of wide interests and expertise and you push forward. In the end, hopefully, you come out with a couple of things that will help the warfighter,” O’Ferrall said. “The technology is an enabler to get us to the point where we can hand the right information to the warfighter at the right time.”

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