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Web Breaks Through Legacy System Barriers

June 2002
By Maryann Lawlor
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Sea and shore systems share applications.

The U.S. Navy is moving full-speed ahead on the tide of transformation by using the Web to address the military’s incessant problems with interoperability. The approach is called Web-enabling, and it is the same technique that allows consumers to transfer funds from a savings account to a checking account or register for a class at a local high school.

The commercial sector quickly realized the advantages Web-enabling applications offer; however, the military’s use of the capability has focused mainly on individual applications. Now, the Navy is employing the technique to create a bridge between the Navy/Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI), which is the basis of shore networks, and Information Technology (IT)-21, the system for at-sea networks. EDS, Herndon, Virginia, was awarded a $9 million, seven-month contract last September to implement the Web-based portal technology under the NMCI program.

Work on Task Force Web began in April 2001. During the first year of the initiative, the Navy developed and implemented pilot portal systems for both the NMCI and IT-21 environments. This spring, NMCI rolled out portal access for shore users and began deploying portal systems for IT-21 in two battle groups.

According to Capt. Francis “Skip” Hiser, USN, officer in charge of Task Force Web operations in Norfolk, Virginia, the primary aim of the effort is to support warfighters. “Our goal is to provide a secure Web-enabled environment that ensures rapid and reliable access to information and data for the warfighter. Yesterday’s legacy applications require specific software programs loaded on the user’s workstation to access data. In a rapidly changing tactical environment, secure, Web-accessible data ensures that warfighters get the information where they need it, when they need it,” Capt. Hiser relates. Task Force Web–Norfolk focuses on the applications and issues that relate to the Navy afloat.

“This is a truly transformational way ahead for the Navy. It breaks down the barriers between stove-piped legacy information systems, provides faster access to authoritative data and allows the warfighter to collaborate in decision-making processes with greater speed and agility,” he adds.

Web enabling allows users access to an application or service through a standard browser interface such as Internet Explorer or Netscape. Special client software is not required on the user’s workstation, the captain explains.

“We currently have approximately 80 Web-enabled applications and services available on the pilot portal. One of our goals as we migrate our applications and services into a Web-enabled environment is to eliminate redundant and duplicative applications. It is anticipated that legacy applications that are not migrated into this Web environment will be retired as their Web-enabled successors become available,” Capt. Hiser offers.

To choose which applications would be moved to the portal, the Task Force Web team worked with the Navy’s systems commands and Echelon II commands. They selected software programs they believed could be expeditiously developed for initial testing in the pilot portal. “It was through [the commands’] aggressive efforts and support that we were able to implement pilot portals ashore and afloat within months of starting this initiative,” Capt. Hiser emphasizes.

Capt. Maureen T. Copelof, USN, is the head of the Task Force Web Washington, D.C., operations, which handles the technical, policy and funding issues of the project. She explains that Adm. William J. Fallon, USN, vice chief of naval operations, directed the Task Force Web team to migrate 50 applications to the Web by the end of 2001. This goal was actually achieved in January 2002, but Capt. Copelof explains that the various commands concurrently developed a plan that inventoried the applications they owned and outlined their organization’s missions. Each group then specified which functions they wanted to bring into the portal as well as goals for the number of applications that will move to the Web each year between 2002 and 2004, when all applications are to be Web-enabled.

“So the applications that were brought into the pilot portal are a mixture from Echelon II commands and include software programs that deal with logistics, operational, weather and personnel management. It’s a wide variety of applications and services, and this is just the starting point. Now, we are working with Echelon II commands in terms of prioritization for the remainder of the applications,” she says.

Among the information sailors and Marines will be able to access once the system is in place are pay, personnel and medical records as well as technical manuals, training material, command and control, and other mission-critical material.

Capt. Copelof points out that it is a combination of having the NMCI and IT-21 infrastructures in place and the launch of new commercial Web-enabling technologies that make the portal possible. She agrees with Capt. Hiser that the primary goal of the effort is to enhance the warfighting capability of the Navy. “This is not just for the process side of the Navy. The goal is to enable all people, no matter where they are, to access information reliably, quickly and more efficiently,” she maintains.

The portal runs on both the nonsecure Internet protocol router network (NIPRNET) and its secure counterpart, SIPRNET. Users are permitted the same access to applications they have in current systems, and access to specific data will be role-based, Capt. Copelof explains.

Training for individuals on how to use Task Force Web is provided within the portal itself. Systems administrators on ships received training through a week-long course, and the NMCI team will provide training to the shore commands. In addition, a help desk has been set up so users can communicate with technical experts who offer assistance and advice.

This spring, the portal was taken for an initial test run on the USS George Washington. Capt. Hiser shares that the feedback from personnel was very positive. “The pilot portals both validated the Web-enabled Navy architecture we envisioned and identified new capabilities in collaboration and knowledge management we previously didn’t think possible with current technology. It also showed us a paradigm shift in the way information is presented to the user. With old legacy applications, only information specific to the application was available to the user. In the Web-enabled environment, users can display information from several sources simultaneously, and it allows users to tailor information specific to their requirements,” he says.

Capt. Copelof agrees that the initial reaction to the portal’s usefulness was very positive. Primarily, users found it much easier to locate desired information because the material was better organized, she notes.

The Task Force Web team hosts quarterly meetings to discuss the issues involved in Web-enabled applications in a joint environment. Web development representatives from all of the U.S. armed forces, the Coast Guard and NATO exchange ideas and provide an initial assessment of potential interoperability issues between the services, Capt. Hiser explains. “It was a welcome surprise to find that we are all aligned and working similar technological solutions toward a Web-enabled environment, and that by collaborating on each service’s technological strengths we would ensure full interoperability in a joint Web-enabled environment,” he allows.

Capt. Copelof discloses that one of the joint meetings revealed that all of the services are wrestling with the same issues in terms of putting an enterprise portal in place. “But we found that there are a lot of places where we can combine our efforts so we’re all heading in the same direction,” she offers.

Several issues still need to be addressed, Capt. Copelof admits. “How do we do single sign-on all the way down to the applications? How do you get one data directory across all systems? How do you take some of the commercial off-the-shelf [COTS] products and put them into the portal? This involves quite a bit of effort when merging various COTS products. And then there’s the question of configuration management,” she relates.

Despite the challenges, Capt. Copelof points out that Task Force Web is an enterprise system that brings with it all the advantages of sharing information on a worldwide basis. “This is going to open up the possibilities because we can share data, and eventually we can share knowledge. We get away from individual networks and move on to an enterprise system, and this will allow people to do their jobs more effectively and efficiently,” she says.

Additional information on Task Force Web is available on the World Wide Web at http://www.tfw.navy.mil.