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Marines Set the Stage for Next-Generation Network

August 1, 2013
By Robert K. Ackerman
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  • Marine Corps communications operators link with their counterparts during an exercise. A major part of the Corps transition to NGEN involved seeking input from warfighters, officials say.
     Marine Corps communications operators link with their counterparts during an exercise. A major part of the Corps transition to NGEN involved seeking input from warfighters, officials say.
  • A U.S. Marine Corps lance corporal data network specialist works at a help desk in the headquarters element of Task Force Leatherneck, 1st Marine Division (Forward). The Corps has completed a transition to its part of the Next-Generation Enterprise Network (NGEN), and a key element of that transition was empowering Marines to provide full end-user support across their network.
     A U.S. Marine Corps lance corporal data network specialist works at a help desk in the headquarters element of Task Force Leatherneck, 1st Marine Division (Forward). The Corps has completed a transition to its part of the Next-Generation Enterprise Network (NGEN), and a key element of that transition was empowering Marines to provide full end-user support across their network.

 

The steady march toward the U.S. Navy’s Next-Generation Enterprise Network underwent a leap ahead as the U.S. Marines undertook a full transition before the contract for the new system even was awarded. The multiyear effort saw the Corps methodically absorb functions of the Navy/Marine Corps Intranet predecessor so the service was positioned for a smooth adoption of the new network.

This shift to a government-owned network required more than just a change in direction. The Corps had to achieve the transition without allowing any break in services to its Marines concurrent with deployments to Southwest Asia. It had to move network operations seamlessly across a philosophical gulf as well as a logistical one without creating a new infrastructure. And, it had to finish the transition perfectly positioned for the incorporation of the Next-Generation Enterprise Network, or NGEN.

By design, the transition planners had to aim at a hidden target. The entire transition took place before the contract for NGEN was awarded (see page 53), so they had no idea what the network would resemble. They needed to estimate what the winning bidder—whichever team it would be—would configure as a cost-effective, government-owned and -operated enterprise network. Then, the planners had to design a transition that would lead the Corps to that envisioned destination without losing any functionality along the way.

On June 1, the multiyear effort largely was completed. Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Nally, USMC, director of Command, Control, Communications and Computers (C4) and chief information officer (CIO) for the Marine Corps, lauds the results. “The transition effort went very, very well,” he states, crediting the skill of the personnel involved for its successful outcome. Their knowledge, as well as their ability to adapt and overcome hurdles, were key to the transition program.

“A multitude of people over a multitude of organizations really came together to make this work,” the general offers. “This was a perfect example of how to bring individuals from different organizations together to accomplish a common goal—a government-owned, government-operated environment.”

Karl G. Hartenstine, information technology supervisor, C4, U.S. Marine Corps, sums up the effort. “What we essentially are doing is taking a centralized, profit-driven enterprise model and we’re trying to decentralize it into a regional model,” he offers. “At the end of the day, we are giving the responsibility, accountability and operational control of the network back to the commander as opposed to a vendor or service provider.”

Unlike the Navy/Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI), where the Navy received the system first and the Marine Corps second, this effort put the Marine Corps in the lead to transition to NGEN, Hartenstine observes. The Marines are providing the Navy with lessons learned to help clear its way into NGEN.

Neal Andrew, deputy, CIO division, C4/CIO, worked the transition at the Department of the Navy and Office of the Secretary of Defense levels, particularly in matters involved with milestone decision authorities. “This groundbreaking effort has been documented and captured and turned over, not only to our Navy counterparts, but also it has been consistently scrutinized by various audits and congressional inquiries as well as Office of the Secretary of Defense personnel,” he affirms. “We’re documenting the fight as we go through.”

Andrew offers that one challenge was to identify the differences in the execution models between the Navy and the Marine Corps. While NGEN is designed singly to handle the needs of the two services, the Marine Corps focuses on government ownership and operation with contractor support. The Navy’s model calls for government ownership with contractor operation and support. That slight difference brought about issues with regard to acquisition oversight, he says.

Andrew points out that the Marine Corps always had a degree of control on its environment as well as a good relationship with HP, the NMCI provider. That partnership gave the Corps the level of flexibility it needed to have parallel efforts for assuming the infrastructure and capabilities inherent in the network. Test and transition activities were conducted with minimal interruption in everyday operations.

At the heart of this effort was a carefully established transition plan covering several phases over the years. Creating and maintaining the structure by which the Marines managed the transition was the key, says David Thompson, Marine Corps Systems Command transition lead. “Bringing together operations, acquisition, policy and planning reduced cycle time and created efficiencies where efficiencies were sought,” he states. “The governing structure was successful.”

Hartenstine explains the transition team worked with the Program Manager Naval Enterprise Networks to develop a strategy document and a management plan. The Marine group then extended those efforts by developing a core transition plan that broke down the effort into key elements. This was supplemented by a robust communications plan that encompassed Marine installations around the world, he adds. Andrew notes that the Marines also held weekly meetings with HP at various levels, and this relationship helped smooth the transition.

Andrew relates that the transition originally was supposed to take place in 2010, when the original contract was slated to end. The delay helped the Marines establish and put into effect the detailed transition plan. “We took time to do a more deliberate approach, and it paid dividends by the results we are getting right now.”

Several years along, this transition effort began to accelerate when the Corps bought back the network infrastructure in October 2010. This entailed spending about $175 million to buy back and begin maintenance of the physical infrastructure. In October 2011, the Marines bought back the infrastructure support from the previous leasing agreement. This moved elements such as cooling and power facilities from the vendor back into the Corps’ hands. In July 2012, the Corps took back the transport layer. For the final phase, which took effect June 1 of this year, the Corps assumed end-user support—service desk and enterprise services.

The Marines always had the ability to manage and maintain the transport layer of networking, says Donald W. Brookins, Marine Corps Network Operations and Security Center network transition branch lead. To be able to run the devices that allow Marine bases and stations to communicate, the Corps needed to obtain permissions and management capabilities.

Other networks have been, and still are being, supported by the Marine Corps, he continues. The skill sets to run these networks were applied to assuming control of the transport layer. In addition, the Corps had to undertake transformation and unification. The transport layer aspect of the transition took place with little negative effect on the user, he states.

Thompson relates that the transition transport phase was aided when the transition established a common lexicon for people, process and technology that was tied to the existing NMCI contract. “So, where we identified what HP was doing, we planned for the government doing on the back end,” he says. “Without that, you would be talking about a square peg, round hole scenario.”

Brookins notes that the NMCI vendor managed and maintained only the Marines’ nonsecure Internet protocol router network (NIPRNet) infrastructure, which had roughly 90,000 seats. On the other hand, the Corps maintained its secret Internet protocol router network (SIPRNet), and the same personnel will be working on both networks under the new system.

While the Marines took over end-user support in June, they planned to keep HP vendor support for assistance, Hartenstine says. “We always are going to have contractor support that will continue until the NGEN contracts,” he explains. “The distinction now is that commander has operational control over that network.”

Brookins notes that the Corps had been taking over many functions before the formal transition. Aspects such as responding to trouble tickets had been assumed by Marines before the formal June 1 transition.

He adds that Marine field services will be the key to “putting a Marine face” on end-user support. For a user, the first level of support will be local instead of at a major facility halfway across the country.

Gen. Nally points out that people at eight Marine air-ground task force (MAGTAF) information technology support centers, along with 11 core data centers, all needed to contribute toward a solution for help desk tactics, techniques and procedures. For the most part, Marines and civilians literally will make house calls to answer help requests in person, the general notes.

Hartenstine says, “One of the things we lost with NMCI that I thought was very sad was, we always say that we train as we fight. When we brought in such a large contract that did so much of our work in garrison, the Marines weren’t doing that work.

“We were able to retain those skill sets because we had Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan running their own networks,” he continues. “When they came back to garrison, you had the contractor doing that.

“In this new environment, you will have Marines redeveloping a lot of those skill sets, and we will start again to train those people in garrison like they are potentially going to work overseas,” he states.

Returning overall operational control to the Marines was a key accomplishment of the transition, Hartenstine concludes. “We gave them a voice back in their network.”

To continue effective network management, the Marines are establishing two laboratories for NGEN—a computer emergency response (CERT) laboratory and a development laboratory. These laboratories will engage in engineering-type activities that formerly were performed by HP, Hartenstine says.

Hartenstine believes the Marine Corps culture helped facilitate the transition. Its personnel worked extensively with bases, posts and stations as well as other focused Marine facilities. Their support and involvement from the start helped make the transition a success, especially in overcoming issues such as resources.

“We’ve really listened to the end users,” Brookins offers. “They’re the pointy end of the spear, and often we in the national capital region don’t fully embrace and understand what’s going on. Truly understanding what the impact will be on the end user, that lance corporal out there potentially in harm’s way—we always have to keep that in mind, and I think we did always keep that in mind.”

By working with HP on NMCI, the Marines have gleaned a good understanding of roles and responsibilities, Thompson explains. So when the Corps begins with NGEN, this work will “port over” to the new vendor. “It will be as simple as on-boarding new resources to perform government functions.”

Gen. Nally relates that the Corps has shared the methodologies and lessons learned from the transition out of NMCI with the U.S. Cyber Command, DISA and the other services. A June lessons-learned summit reviewed process elements that were documented in detail, he adds.

This transition can serve as an example for how to consolidate and unify networks in a single security architecture, particularly for the Joint Information Environment (JIE), the general continues. “This is the way we’re going to move the Marine Corps into the Joint Information Environment,” he declares. “We’ve mapped it out now to the switches and routers, and we’re ready to implement JIE with the single security architecture and the transparency of the networks.”

Hartenstine notes that Defense Department officials are looking at the transition’s lessons learned for elements that could be applied to the JIE. He adds that the core transition plan and the functional transition documents have been provided to the JIE effort, and officials there have found them beneficial for formulating a transition to that enterprise.

 

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