Army makes headway with global network expansion

Army alters name as project shifts to implementation phase

The Army’s plans to integrate all its communications into a single network without incompatible formats is making headway. The Global Network Enterprise Construct, which was developed to improve compatibility within the LandWarNet architecture, is moving from concept to implementation.

Recent advances are significant enough to warrant a name change for GNEC, which pulls several network enterprise programs and initiatives into a single strategy that will make the Army interoperable with other Defense Department groups.

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LandWarNet slated for key transformation

“GNEC is a term we want to move away from. It is now about building the Global Network Enterprise (GNE),” said Maj. Gen. Mark Bowman, director of architecture, operations, networks and space at the Army's CIO office. “A global enterprise network will provide every soldier with universal access to his or her applications and data, critical ISR video feeds, command and control information, continuous position location information, mission updates, collaboration tools, and training capabilities during all phases of the Army Force Generation (ARFORGEN) cycle.”

Migrating to a common operating environment is one of many program facets now being implemented. The COE defines minimum standard configurations for computing environments ranging from the enterprise to the tactical edge, making it easier to combine communications that use commercial and military systems. The Army also has mandated a single mode for transmission of information.

Data including simple text, voice, video or other data types will be sent via a nonproprietary IP dubbed everything over IP. That will eliminate incompatibilities, making it much easier for warfighters to gather all the information they need.

“Before, soldiers received a lot of technology with no way to integrate it,” said retired Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson, a partner at A.T. Kearney's Aerospace and Defense practice and former Army CIO. “Now they’ll have the technology and standards to integrate wireless, fiber optics and others, as well as improved security capabilities. Vendors are being told that if they don’t build to the standards, they won’t be able to bring technology in.”

Adoption of the new GNE concepts will also save the military money and help DOD stay abreast of the latest technologies. “Standardizing our computing environments and our transmission medium will maximize the Army's ability to use commercial-off-the-shelf or near-COTS technologies,” Bowman said.

Adopting commercial products

The focus on commercial products extends to portable gear that helps transform social media and other aspects of electronic communication in consumer and business fields. The environments within the COE architecture include smart phones and handheld devices, such as tablets.

The development of applications will be based on the standards defined within the COE. When those standards include commercial technologies such as Android, iPhone and BlackBerry, both companies and individuals can write software that will work with a range of well-known technologies, and competition should increase, which trims costs.

“If off-the-shelf apps do provide capabilities for soldiers, the Army can avoid the money pit that often shows up when they acquire programs,” said James Mustarde, marketing director at Twisted Pair Solutions.

The Army already is testing a number of these new concepts. One of the crucial elements of this agile networking technology is to run products through rigorous trials. The Brigade Modernization Command is working on Network Integration Evaluations while running and analyzing other field tests. “We are establishing an architectural baseline of an integrated Army Network at Fort Bliss,” Bowman said.

One of the most important aspects of those field tests is to ensure that data integrity is not compromised. The military’s security and reliability concerns are far greater than those of commercial cellular markets.

“Before we start delivering both end devices and apps to the field, we must — I repeat, must — ensure that we clearly understand the risks and secure our data appropriately. We are looking for industry’s help in this regard,” Bowman said.

As those critical security issues are being addressed, planners must also resolve the challenges of certifying and acquiring commercial hardware and software from a broad range of suppliers. Integrating smart phones, mobile devices and an agile apps development and certification process into the Army’s structures requires cooperation from a number of groups.

“We are working with acting assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology and the Army Training and Doctrine Command and others to improve our end-to-end processes in order to rapidly acquire, develop and deploy software to the field,” Bowman said.

Cost cuts reconfigure the grid

Those technologies are only some of the ones that the Army is changing in LandWarNet, its contribution to DOD’s Global Information Grid. A central component of the Army’s Global Network Enterprise strategy is to establish network service centers in each theater. These centers will use the network to enable warfighting capabilities and improve defense of LandWarNet while also improving efficiencies and interoperability.

While it’s setting up new facilities, the Army is also paring a number of others. “The biggest change over the past year or so is in the data center consolidation project,” Bowman said. Those cuts have been mandated by the White House, he added.

The Army plans to consolidate about 75 percent of its data centers by fiscal 2015. That translates to about 185 sites. As the Army closes those facilities, it will shift networking capabilities to other groups.

“You will see us consolidate to, first, DISA Defense Enterprise Computing Centers, second, to commercial solutions possibly using the Army Private Cloud contract that is currently in source selection, and finally, in Army-owned data centers,” Bowman said.

In the past, the private cloud computing environments would have been housed in Army-built data centers or sometimes run on dedicated Army hardware in DISA's DECCs. With the new shift to commercial hardware and software, computing power will now be located wherever it provides the most bang for the buck.

“We are altering our strategy to implement Army computing environments following the COE architecture on shared computing infrastructure wherever we can to improve performance, increase security and save on costs,” Bowman said.

The focus on cost cutting will impact the communications infrastructure in many ways. The Army plans to increase its terrestrial communications so it can reduce its reliance on more costly satellite links.

“My belief is that we depend too much on satellites," Bowman said. "We are working with the [Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence] on an aerial tier to extend line-of-sight communications.”

He noted that the broad scope of all those changes makes the combined efforts a major challenge. Many different technologies and numerous military groups are involved, so there are many trade-offs to consider.

“This is, without a doubt, the hardest project the CIO/G-6 has ongoing right now because it is forcing us to rationalize and virtualize our application portfolio," Bowman said. "At the same time, our program executive officer for enterprise information systems has rechartered the former Product Manager Area Processing Centers to focus on force projection enablers, especially in Southwest Asia.” 

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