Air Force needs super modeling for efficiency and reliability

Modeling tool helps spotlight relationships among business processes and IT systems

The family tree of the Air Force's business systems is a sprawling behemoth, and one Air Force unit is toiling to trace the relationships among business strategies, business processes and the systems that support them.

After five years, the 643rd Electronic Systems Squadron's Enterprise Architecture Group is about halfway through a project intended to deliver a comprehensive view of the interrelationships among those critical resources.

The squadron is part of the 554th Electronic Systems Wing, a unit of the Air Force Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass. The wing develops, fields, sustains and operates worldwide computer communications and force protection systems and capabilities.

The 643rd Electronic Systems Squadron works to ensure that secure systems use integration and architecture standards so that those critical systems can function across multiple domains worldwide. The squadron is primarily located at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., with support located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and Hanscom.

The effort to outline the relationships among business processes and IT systems became a little easier after the squadron decided to use Metastorm’s ProVision enterprise modeling tool, said Brian Chaney, director of IT strategy and architecture at Copper River IT, a systems integrator working with the squadron.

ProVision modeling lets architects develop a comprehensive enterprise architecture blueprint and conduct a business analysis.  ProVision contains workflow models that give enterprise architects a “deep-dive understanding of the business processes that are being supported by the IT systems,” Chaney said.

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“As we started to model the different IT systems and their business processes that support it, we started to see true duplication,” Chaney said.  “Everybody thought there was duplication in system functions. But we started to understand where overlaps were occurring, and that started to give us an idea of how we could move forward in the future.”

Chaney’s team identified where data elements and interfaces overlap. The team has helped in the analysis of the Air Force’s Expeditionary Combat Support System, a large enterprise planning resource system for logistics. The aim is to fold 500 logistic systems into one domain.  The squadron is using ProVision to document business processes so that the information can be reused.

“We’ve used the ProVision tool to help support the program office in understanding how complex all the interfaces and all of their interrelations are going to be and how that is going to change over time,” Chaney said.  “A system that large isn’t going to roll out in one day.” 

The aim is to help architects who work with the Expeditionary Combat Support System develop a phased approached for shutting down certain systems as their functionality and interfaces are removed.

ProVision provides domain-specific reference models that provide the foundation for defining the operations of critical business functions. The tool contains prebuilt reference models for finance, design chain, customer chain, supply chain, the IT Infrastructure Library and telecommunications. Enterprise architects can also design their own reference model.

The tool also supports major architectural frameworks, such as the DOD Architecture Framework, the federal enterprise architecture, the Open Group Architecture Framework, Six Sigma and the Zachman framework. Architects can also build their own frameworks.

The Electronic Systems Squadron is using the tool to make sure certain systems conform to a service-oriented architecture. For example, one large program is described as tightly coupled to two systems, but its databases actually connect to two systems: an Air Force system and another DOD system, Chaney said.

“We are using the architecture and the ProVision simulation piece to see what effect the decoupling of the two IT systems is going to have against the business processes,” he said.

Before the squadron started using ProVision, it handles a lot of the modeling work in Microsoft Visio and PowerPoint. Those tools satisfied requirements at the time because the Air Force was trying to inventory its systems and processes.

However, the 643rd Electronic Systems Squadron keeps receiving refined requirements, such as ensuring full-tool integration and verifying that the underlying enterprise and SOA architecture is compliant with Extensible Markup Language so metadata from the different architecture products can be analyzed. In addition, the level of maturity of the enterprise and SOA has improved.

“Now that we’ve gotten good baselines of the IT systems, it is helping in their defect analysis,” Chaney said.

“We’ve got the portfolio under control now, but how do you use the architecture to provide value back to the customer?” he asked. "An IT system always has problems, and there always seems to be an emergency. Now IT personnel can take a field call and ask users what they were doing when the problem happened. IT now can determine what business process they were in."

The processes are tied to the interconnected system modules. “We can now zero in on the defect of the system module, so it has cut down defect analysis time,” Chaney said.

Defect analysis has been reduced from two weeks to a few hours. After IT staff members determine which system component is broken, they can determine if there is a workaround and figure out if the source of the problem is a system or user error. They can run a simulation to determine the defect's impact on the overall business process. Then they can decide whether they need to release an emergency patch or whether they can perform a workaround that won’t have a major impact on business processes.

That also gives program offices stability in their release cycles, Chaney said.

In five years, the 643rd squadron has modeled about 90 systems, including finance, human resources, logistics and medical systems. “As we have transitioned, we could have as many as 300-plus systems to fully model the entire portfolio,” Chaney said.

ProVision is a lot like having a Global Positioning System unit in your car, Chaney said.  “It allows you to see the map and what’s around it, like how far is your destination. Other modeling tools are more like an atlas. They give you nice pretty pictures, but you don’t have that depth.”

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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