DISA's path to enterprise services begins with e-mail

Agency officials plan to take greater ownership of essential technologies

As Defense Information Systems Agency director Gen. Carroll Pollett continues to shape his vision for DISA, the agency’s director of strategic planning and information, John Garing, and DISA’s component acquisition executive, Anthony Montemarano, spoke with Defense Systems in separate interviews last month to discuss some of the agency’s key network enterprise initiatives.

When Lt. Gen. Carroll Pollett arrived as director of DISA in December 2008, the agency was already in the midst of rapid changes. With tightening budgets, pressures from the services to provide greater warfighter support and the challenge of operating the Defense Department’s networks while cyberattacks become more frequent, DISA was already preparing a path for an increasingly joint information infrastructure for the services.

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The third collaboration button

And part of that path is being paved with DISA’s planned enterprise e-mail test system. The agency is preparing to consolidate existing Microsoft Exchange instances into an enterprise e-mail system, said John Garing, DISA’s chief information officer and director of strategic planning. The Army and Transportation Command are ready to be customers for the effort, which DISA will first test internally.

“I believe we are now in hot pursuit of a services delivery platform — that is to say, the blurring of the network, the computing infrastructure, and the enterprise services, into something a user can hit from wherever he or she happens to be and [access] services,” Garing said.

The vision is similar to what users experience with Google, Amazon and other commercial Internet services. “I get what I want, and I can do it kind of quickly," Garing said. "And the idea is to enable the same kind of experience for warfighters, business people, whoever in the Department of Defense needs to hit the network and get information.”

He said the route to that service level is cloud computing. Rather than having a specific server that hosts applications for specific users, Garing sees DISA providing applications as part of the overall network infrastructure, through service-oriented architecture and software as a service.

“We're going to have a cloud, and we're going to move towards having that cloud accessible so people can draw information on what they want,” he said.

DISA has striven to deliver many of its programs as network-centric systems, using a service-oriented architecture and, in some cases, software-as-a-service offerings, such as the two-button collaboration tools offered as part of Net-Centric Enterprise Services. The net-centric approach continues to be shaped by the ABC philosophy — adopt before buy, buy before create — promoted by Pollett’s predecessor, Lt. Gen. Charles Croom.

Cost reduction

Tony Montemarano, DISA’s component acquisition executive, said using service-oriented architecture and net-centric services has had a major impact on reducing the cost of delivering services.

“As we've gone forward with the Net-Centric Enterprise Services, we've applied [the ABC approach] to all of the capabilities,” Montemarano said, adding that “out of all of them, we only had to buy two.”

The approach has already “begun to address the problem of each entity building" their own solution, he said. “We've done that with the [NCES] content discovery service, which was provided by the intelligence community. We've done it with DKO, [which is based on the Army's Army Knowledge Online Web portal.] That has been a huge success in the sense that there's been a tremendous avoidance of cost. The teamwork of the services has made a huge difference.”

The shift toward cloud computing, accompanied by the notion of a computing infrastructure and on-demand application services, will inevitably change the nature of the relationship between DISA and its customers, the military services.

“Our traditional role has been to go to the point of presence on a base,” Garing said. “But as you put enterprise services out there that everybody uses, all of a sudden, we have skin in that game.… When [soldiers] use an enterprise service, like search or collaboration or whatever, we have to consider the soldier's needs, not just the base's need. And that is yet another change, I think, as we get pulled closer and closer to the edge.”

A prime example of that move to the edge is the enterprise e-mail effort. “We are going to provide e-mail as an enterprise service, collapsing our Microsoft footprint to become more efficient," Garing said. "The goal is that DISA will be that service provider. Now, let me be clear on this; what we are doing is collapsing our existing Exchange infrastructure. We're doing this in a more efficient way within the boundaries of what your licensing agreements with Microsoft allow.”

The major benefit to service members will be having a single, universal e-mail address that is accessible while in garrison, in training or while deployed. “As long as you have individual mail services, you can't quite get to that, so we're going to do this as an enterprise service, and we're going to start with the thinking on the tactical edge and work back to the core.”

That type of e-mail service meshes with the goals of Army CIO Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson. “We want to get to a universal data storage point, with one phone number, e-mail and one set of collaborative tools that will not change, even when one physically moves," Sorenson told an audience at a breakfast held by AFCEA International's Baghdad chapter Feb. 26. “The Army will be transitioning a lot of independent networks into a single network enterprise. In order to be effective, we in the United States have to be able to communicate with all our expeditionary forces. The current network we have is not a single enterprise, and we have to do a lot to make it function to the expeditionary level."

And the Army is the biggest supporter of DISA’s initiative, Garing said.

“I believe — I know — that the Army is going to use enterprise mail, the one we provide. In fact, they're helping shape the strategy in the scheduling of who goes first.… Gen. Pollett, Mr. [Alfred] Rivera, [DISA’s director of computing services], Ms. [Rebecca] Harris, [DISA’s program executive officer for Global Information Grid enterprise services] and I were in Gen. Sorensen's office with him and Mr. [Mike] Krieger, [the Army’s deputy CIO]. And we talked through data centers and other things. They don't want to do what they don't have to do, so if we can give them a viable mail service and viable hosting environments for their processing centers, then they're going to use us.”

Domain expansion

“Enterprise e-mail is a good example of how DISA has been expanding its domain into areas that were controlled by the military services,” said Warren Suss, founder of Suss Consulting. “In an era where more and more of the functionality [of enterprise services] moves into the network and cloud computing takes on some reality, it’s no longer going to be possible to separate the core infrastructure responsibilities from the responsibilities at the ends of the network.”

But delivering that kind of service to deployed warfighters connected via terrestrial radio networks or satellite communications or sailors aboard small ships with limited and sometimes unreliable satellite links will present significant technical challenges, just as providing other cloud services will.

Garing said he doesn’t think the issues of extending the reach to warfighters is a network technology issue.

“Once you get past not everybody [having] the same user experience, and you say, 'What’s minimally acceptable at the edge for this enterprise service,' and you deliver that so they can operate disadvantaged, disconnected, intermittently — once they get reconnected, they may be disadvantaged, but they’re going to be connected.” The issue is in the design of the service, and that it gracefully degrades.

But Suss said he believes that bandwidth will continue to be a major challenge for DISA at the edges of the enterprise. “Moving from the Croom to Pollett era, we are going to see a growth in demand for bandwidth at just about every level,” he said. “That demand is just going to accelerate. It creates a set of challenges, particularly with delivering service to the tactical edge, where there are limitations in terms of terrestrial transmission, and even [satellite] resources are stretched to the maximum. That’s going to be a constant theme for DISA, especially how to deliver bandwidth to the tactical edge.”

About the Author

Sean Gallagher is senior contributing editor for Defense Systems.

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