Only one organization can put a Defense Department-approved seal of interoperability on an information technology or communications system: the Defense Information Systems Agency’s Joint Interoperability Test Command. When a system must interface with other systems, JITC's testers make it work.
The differences can be as small as a data field in one system being a couple of bits longer than another system’s, thus preventing the data from flowing between systems, said Col. Ron Stephens, JITC’s commander.
“Unfortunately, in the communication world, we don’t design systems purple,” he said, meaning they aren’t developed with interoperability in mind.
JITC certifies an average of 140 to 150 systems a year. It has an annual budget of about $60 million to cover expenses; programs or vendors pay for the testing. The command employs about 1,320 civilian workers, military personnel and contractors, who make up three-quarters of the workforce, in Arizona, Maryland and Virginia. "DOD regulations dictate that JITC must certify systems before they are deployed, although some urgent systems might be rushed into the field without certification, said Stuart Brock, JITC's deputy commander.
Getting a system certified isn’t as simple as building it to conform to standard specifications, Stephens said. For one thing, standards often leave enough leeway for variations to crop up during implementation. Also, there’s a wide range of standards to choose from, many of which were developed by competing vendors. A ton of people [are] writing standards,” Stephens said. “Unfortunately, if you’ve got a particular contractor implementing standards, it gets competitive.”
Users of JITC-certified systems should also be aware that certification doesn’t give blanket approval for all of permutations of an IT system. We say that this certification is configured in this particular way in this environment and this manner,” Stephens said. Change any of those elements, and the system is no longer certified.
He said he encourages managers of military programs to talk to JITC early in the development process. The command wants to be involved with programs before they are officially certified as programs — that is, before they have passed Milestone A in DOD's acquisition process. Certification testing occurs before Milestone C, but by then, if an IT program has code that hinders interoperability, it is difficult to unravel and rewrite it.
“If you include JITC early on, what you end up with is a better-coded product that works from the beginning,” Stephens said.
Brock cited the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) program as an initiative that is on track to succeed. Managed by the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, the program seeks to create software-defined radios that eventually will replace service-centric radios. “They’ve come to us already, and we’re doing a lot of work with them,” Brock said. “I am very confident that the JTRS system will do very well when they do field their program at the end.”
Stephens said he advises vendors seeking interoperability certification for their products to approach JITC through a DOD sponsor. “We can’t actually give a certification without [specific interoperability] requirements,” he said.
The situation is different for vendors that only want a standards-conformance certification for equipment that can be included on an approved list for use in systems such as the Defense Switched Network -- and all DSN-connected equipment requires that certification. In those cases, testers evaluate products against generic requirements.
“Some systems, like routers or switches for networks or that type of thing, it’s pretty clear what they’re supposed to do," Stephens said. “But software? Another question altogether. Without specific requirements for interoperability, it would be impossible to say what exactly it interoperates with.”