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NMCI in a Box

July 15, 2008
by Maryann Lawlor
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Disaster zones are the latest home for a system that is more often seen in command centers and Pentagon offices than in operations. The Deployable Site Transport Boundary (DSTB) is a local area network extension capability that can enable up to 200 warfighters in the field to tap into the Navy/Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI) using one public Internet protocol address. The capability was developed by the U.S. Marine Corps and EDS to enable humanitarian relief efforts with a small equipment footprint.

Ron Bowlin, manager, NMCI Enterprise Engineering Services, EDS, says the genesis of the capability occurred in mid-2006 when the Marine Corps needed instant plug-and-play access to the NMCI network during a deployment. The capability did not exist then, but by spring 2008, what has been donned “NMCI in a Box” was not demonstrated but actually used during exercise Cobra Gold in Thailand. Also, the 3rd Marine Logistics Group, based in Japan, recently used the capability while deployed to Burma as part of Joint Task Force Caring Response, a humanitarian relief mission.

The box this NMCI connection comes in is no ordinary container. About the size of a steamer trunk, it is both ruggedized and waterproof. Among the components inside is a router, virtual private networking technology, a wide-area data services application accelerator called Steelhead and an uninterruptible power supply.

The DSTB enables local, wide and base area network access with 100-megabyte bandwidth within local connectivity. Featuring bandwidth optimization, the DSTB performs over high-latency circuits, such as satellites, and non-NMCI surrogate networks, including overseas Internet connections and networks available in hotels and onboard U.S. Navy ships. It allows virtual private network/Internet protocol security encrypted traffic over multiple external networks, including the nonsecure Internet protocol router network (NIPRNET), the Marine Corps Tactical Network, IT-21, the Defense Research and Engineering Network, the Defense Switched Network and the Internet. Dedicated NMCI online support is available, with local site operations support accessible in areas where NMCI personnel are stationed.

As originally designed, the configuration can support 48 user connections to the NMCI; it can be scaled—using additional routers—to support up to 200 users.

According to Marine Corps officials, the DSTB relieves the Marines from deploying with a heavy footprint of servers. By using the DSTB, the capability of the entire NMCI is available on location in a two-person transportable form factor.

It also solves the problem of multiple e-mail accounts for deployed users. When the Marines deploy without the DSTB, a new exchange server is utilized, and users are assigned a new e-mail address for the duration of the operation or exercise. With the DSTB, their e-mail address remains the same wherever they are, and they do not lose any of the NMCI’s garrison capabilities.

So far, the capability has not posed any challenges, Marine Corps officials say. Deployment has been completely transparent; users simply pick up their laptops in the garrison, bring them to the deployment site and plug them in on location.

And, the users have been very satisfied, officials add. They especially like that their NMCI laptops operate the same way anywhere in the world DSTB is set up as they do at their home base in Okinawa.

As for the future, Marine Corps officials say the DSTB will continue to be used as appropriate during exercises and real-world missions that require information technology services in a deployed environment. Bowlin says that while the current DSTB is only appropriate for NIPRNET and Internet connectivity, EDS is considering using online encryption to increase usage for secured environments. In addition, Bowlin says he is convinced the DSTB could make it technically feasible to bring NMCI on ships during deployment.