Air Force builds high-performance data center

Hill Air Force Base's Project Bonfire puts service delivery first

Before the 2007 launch of a major data center consolidation at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, the base's situation was similar to that faced by countless government offices: unstable networks marked by frequent outages,  noncompliance with federal IT mandates, poor integration, and redundant and ineffective technologies.

Nearly four years later, Hill Air Force Base’s data center consolidation project, dubbed Project Bonfire, is a model for how the government can consolidate data centers, improve cybersecurity, reduce costs and comply with evolving federal standards.

The project also is emerging as a case study for reshaping how IT services are delivered to government customers. In an era of shrinking budgets, the ability to save money by consolidating and optimizing services has become increasingly important.

“Hill had lots of technology and no real integrated solutions,” said Douglas Babb, chief IT systems architect of the 75th Communications and Information Directorate at Hill Air Force Base and a contractor at Systems Implementers. “Our focus was on the actual services we deliver and not the technology that performs them. The services we deliver — that’s the queen bee in the hive.”

With services in mind, Babb knew that the program had to meet certain benchmarks:

  • Reduce the number of platforms and architectures.
  • Consolidate vendor relationships.
  • Embrace open platforms and automation.
  • Receive validation.
  • Undergo frequent testing.
  • Apply best practices.

During the launch of Project Bonfire, Babb and his team used a scorch-the-Earth approach to overhauling the base’s dozens of IT systems. The project set out to simplify the Hill Air Force Base’s IT operations, cut costs and ignite innovative change at the Defense Department, Babb said.

Along the way, the mission came to be shaped by more than just compliance and consolidation. The team sought to transform the delivery of IT services and initiate a step-by-step process that includes frequent testing and demonstration.

“We knew that a stepwise implementation path, effective service management, transparency and time to value to our customers was critical,” Babb said. “We needed good management tools and good metrics to be successful.… You can’t build a roof without a foundation.”

Project Bonfire is now in its automation phase, the fourth of five phases and a critical step toward enabling consistency and streamlining once-tedious processes, such as provisioning new servers. The automated capabilities enable on-demand use and allocation of servers rather than wading through lengthy approval processes, he said.

“If you look at the procurement process, it takes time to get a server online,” said Babb, who added that through automation, the Hill Air Force Base's services are tested and delivered in a secure and trusted process. “It can be difficult in DOD to get through the paperwork process to get a server provisioned. Now we can provision a server in less than an hour.”

But getting to that point has required careful adherence to the stepwise process, particularly in regards to regular testing and working in an iterative progression.

“You have to do it one bite at a time,” Babb said. “A test is worth a million opinions; if you can’t show progress, why continue? And if you can’t return some value within 90 days, you shouldn’t do it.”

Step-by-step data center consolidation has paid off at the Hill Air Force Base during the past four years.

"The federal effort for data center consolidation makes [the project] important to us," said Mike Neri, deputy director of communications and chief technology officer at the Hill Air Force Base's enterprise data center. "Because of the success we've had, we're getting more diversity in our required services. The systems we've consolidated are faster and more stable, and we can do things like next-day delivery of services."

“We’ve gone from a state with several down times per week to a state where outages are a surprise,” Babb said. “Sometimes people think it’s a problem too big to solve, but it’s not. As we gain momentum, it’s getting better and better."

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a staff writer covering military networks for Defense Systems.

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