Data Packets

Army Refines Program to Spur App Development

Speed-to-market is a concept familiar to most technology developers. It’s a notion that Army Chief Information Officer Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson hoped to embrace when he announced the introduction last September of a new software innovation contest called Apps for the Army.

But as Sorenson discovered, moving quickly is never easy in the Army. What began as an attempt to replicate a model for rapid software development, popularized by Apps for Democracy co-creator Peter Corbett, soon encountered a barrage of legal questions and operational issues that delayed the program’s March 1 launch.

Sorenson said he recognized the delays in a briefing March 3. “We had some grand expectations of what we were trying to achieve,” Sorenson said. “As we got into the details, we found [various plans] conflicted with some legal and other issues.”

As a result, the program underwent a series of revisions, making it more like other military technology challenges. The program limits the number of teams that can apply to 100 and spells out in greater detail how awards will be made. Applicants must be employed by the Army and receive approval from their supervisors to participate. That should lead to a stronger talent pool and ensure participants get the time they need to work on their projects, Sorenson said.

The A4A program, as Army officials have dubbed it, will pay $30,000 in cash rewards for Web and mobile applications across eight categories, including applications for data delivery, warfighting, mission support, local-aware mobile, training and education, morale and recreation, and personnel and career management.

Marvin Wages, program manager of A4A, said "making Apps for the Army a challenge with cash awards provides participants additional incentive to create an application. It also creates more interest" in the competition, he added.

However, Sorenson is betting on a bigger prize: that the Army will mirror the experience the District of Columbia demonstrated two years ago when its Office of the Chief Technology Officer — then led by Vivek Kundra — offered $50,000 in cash prizes to people to develop applications that would make D.C. data more useful to the public.

Corbett, chief executive officer of iStrategyLab, which helped create the D.C. Apps for Democracy project, said that contest produced 47 iPhone, Facebook and Web applications valued at $2.3 million in combined savings to the city. And, as importantly, it reduced the time it might have taken to build and deploy those applications from two years to 30 days.

Sorenson said those kinds of returns helped get funding for the A4A program. But the real payoff for the Army would be in seeing applications “that might in many cases save soldier’s lives, which is priceless.”

The genesis of the A4A program traces back to frustrations Sorenson saw firsthand in the battlefield. He recalled the experiences of two National Guard soldiers, Staff Sgt. Carlos Castillo and Sgt. Paul Lin of the 1st Battalion, 160th Infantry Regiment. The soldiers knew there was a better way to manage records. They proposed developing a software application to streamline the process. As Sorenson tells it, it took six months to secure a development server for them. After it arrived and the men completed their work, they realized the software had to stay on that server, preventing it from being deployed and enhanced elsewhere.

“It dawned on me,” Sorenson said, “we have a lot of capable soldiers in the Army, but we’ve not given them the opportunity or the platform” to develop the kind of applications the military could use to improve operations.

Now, by using the military’s Rapid Access Computing Environment and, a collaborative software repository, both managed by the Defense Information Systems Agency, soldiers and Army civilians can easily access a development sandbox and make use of virtual Windows and Linux servers. They’ll also have access to mobile application emulation software for Android, BlackBerry and Windows Mobile operating systems and to SharePoint, ASPNet and LAMP, Sorenson said. Participants can also meet online using a social media space set up on the military’s milBook site.

So far, 16 teams have applied for the A4A competition, which runs from March 1 to May 15, Sorenson said. This is just the first step in the Army’s efforts to accelerate software development and deployments, he added. “It’s not the end-state.”

— Wyatt Kash

Future Warfare Gets Funding Nod, but Little Prioritization

Based on its buzzworthy lead-in, the Quadrennial Defense Review was supposed to usher in a new way of thinking for the Defense Department and its $708 billion budget request for fiscal 2011. It was supposed to be a beacon of new military strategy and the dawn of the modernized U.S. military.

And in some ways, it is. New strategies for multiconflict capabilities marked a new DOD outlook, and generous funding for unmanned aerial vehicles took center stage for defense technology spending, with at least $2.2 billion earmarked for bolstering unmanned aircraft fleets. Defense Secretary Robert Gates hailed the importance of better intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, for which UAVs are the most visible first step.

However, there are numerous critics. Some say that despite all the high-level touting of forces of the future, the QDR and the fiscal 2011 budget still focus disproportionately on current conflicts and not enough on the future. Others complain that with so many objectives to be a do-it-all military, there is no clear prioritization. Almost all critical discourse points to the high costs of trying to take on so many complex missions at once.

Now the truly difficult part begins: implementing the complicated, often competing strategies faced by a department that is straddling the fence between traditional combat and asymmetrical warfare.

“We must be ready for challenges big and small, near and far…for the wars we may need to fight in the future, even as we win the fights we’re in right now,” said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “As we’ve seen firsthand through eight years of war, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets are absolutely critical enablers for the warfighter.”

The budget outlines those goals with its focus on UAVs and force modernization. The use of UAVs for ISR has increased exponentially in recent years. “The most important idea [in the QDR] is that ISR will be the advantage over the enemy,” said Air Force Gen. Charles Wald, former deputy commander of the European Command.

But in the future, persistent ISR will require more than just UAVs. “Unmanned water, land and helicopter vehicles will be hugely important down the road,” Wald said.

Additionally, technological breakthroughs are necessary to fully harness the power of ISR. Wald pointed to two areas where this is key: computer capacity and the development of algorithms that define how to process data from UAVs.

Modernization efforts also emerged as a central tenet in the QDR and defense budget.

The Army outlined a number of provisions for modernizing its force, including $3 billion for restructuring its Brigade Combat Team (BCT) Modernization for a more versatile Army. Most of that is coming from the Army's declining budget for research, development, testing and evaluations.

The Army’s BCT Modernization plan, released Feb. 19, calls for fielding spinout technologies, such as sensors and robotics from the former Future Combat Systems program.

But even with the record budget request for fiscal 2011, DOD will ultimately need to choose which various missions to fund, Larry Korb, a former Pentagon official who is now at the Center for American Progress, told Defense News.

Korb said neither the QDR nor the budget request specifies priorities, “and there is nothing here that forces the services to make hard decisions,” Korb said. “This kind of strategy is fine so long as it’s clear what you’re going to buy when you have a choice to make. But there’s no mention of how [Pentagon officials] will go about that.”

But DOD officials beg to differ. They say the QDR provides some answers to the question of prioritization and a guiding principle for weighing options and acting accordingly. “Ensuring flexibility of the whole force does not require each part of the force to do everything equally well,” the review's authors wrote. “Not all challenges pose the same degree of threat to national interests, rely on U.S. military capabilities equally or have the same chance of occurrence.”

In other words, DOD must perform a balancing act that depends in no small part on military planners’ ability to see into the future.

— Amber Corrin

Cloud Clarifies Haiti Relief Work

One of many visions for government cloud computing played out in the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake. The Defense Information Systems Agency's Rapid Access Computing Environment became the network platform for relief workers to share information in the impoverished nation in the absence of basic communications networks.

The agency was able to put a network infrastructure into place extraordinarily quickly using the cloud-based system, Air Force Maj. Gen. Ronnie Hawkins, DISA's vice director, said March 18 at a conference on cloud computing and service-oriented computing architecture sponsored by the D.C. chapter of AFCEA International.

RACE normally provides on-demand computing capabilities for the military. But in Haiti, military and nongovernmental groups used it to provide a network platform for Working With Transnational Information Sharing Cooperation and the All Partners Access Network, Hawkins said.

It provided a diverse group of users “situational awareness that allowed people to chat and build courses of action," he added.

The infrastructure as a service and readily-available software applications permitted relief workers to establish ad hoc text messaging and collaboration services. The on-demand availability of DISA’s computing networking services drew praise from federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra as an example of how recent technology and social media innovations can revolutionize the way government works with citizens.

Chopra and Hawkins spoke during separate sessions at the conference. Chopra, who challenged his audience to embrace game-changing uses of technology, noted how the DISA computing service enabled relief workers to locate Creole translators and counselors online throughout the world to help respond to text requests for help.

— Wyatt Kash

Army E-Mail Consolidation First Step in Enterprise Efforts

During the next two years, the Army will consolidate the various e-mail accounts of nearly 250,000 users in a move toward creating a managed, enterprisewide e-mail, calendar and messaging system that could eventually serve all of the Defense Department.

A draft request for proposals posted March 5 tentatively puts a $243 million price tag on the migration and management services contract and sets an initial timeline to begin migrating accounts in November and finish by April 2012. The draft also invites potential bidders to partner with the Defense Information Systems Agency to develop the system, which will be built on Microsoft Exchange 2010, according to Army procurement documents.

The roughly 250,000 accounts in question are only a fraction of the Army’s 950,000 users. It’s a plan that has long been championed by Army Chief Information Officer Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson, who is spearheading the effort as part of the Army’s Global Network Enterprise Construct. GNEC is a major, ongoing information technology consolidation project designed to streamline military communications.

The RFP "outlines the strategy for enterprise e-mail, and they’ve been working this for a while," said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting. "The Army is taking the DOD lead on this.”

In the future, an enterprise e-mail account could allow service members to log on to a single account from virtually anywhere. According to a concept-of-operations document, it would foster communication across DOD, from Washington to the tactical edge in addition to virtual teams that could work together from opposite sides of the globe.

But the challenges to building enterprise e-mail are numerous, beginning with the 15 separate Active Directory forests that house the data and networks and facilitate e-mail communications across several hundred sites worldwide. The current system is not always functional when mobile, and there is no enterprise-level overview of availability.

The new system would need to reconcile the several e-mail addresses some service members already have and the existing 2 million Army Knowledge Online and Defense Knowledge Online users’ information and capabilities.

And then there are the transition challenges associated with Base Realignment and Closure efforts, which are relocating thousands of Army personnel, including those from the Army Forces Command, Army Materiel Command and Transportation Command, all scheduled to move in the second quarter of this year.

Lt. Col. Peter Barclay, Army CIO for the Advanced Technology Directorate, said in August 2009 that the enterprise e-mail service would not be ready in time for many BRAC-related moves, meaning users will need to migrate e-mail accounts when they move and again when the new system becomes fully available.

But the Army estimates the move will save millions of dollars and slash the operating cost of $400 million a year, in addition to improving mission efficiency and reducing cyber threats caused by the current network’s multiple points of entry.

“This is a step in the direction of enterprise infrastructure that has been talked about by [DOD CIO] Dave Wennergren, [Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Gen. James Cartwright and Lt. Gen. Sorenson,” Suss said. “There is some uncertainty and risk that add a wrinkle here, particularly in the competition between the commercial sector and DISA, but we’ll have to wait and see.”

— Amber Corrin

Defense Systems Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

Terms and Privacy Policy consent

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.