John G. Grimes, U.S. Defense Department

September 2006
By John G. Grimes, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Networks and Information Integration and Chief Information Officer, U.S. Defense Department

Which emerging technology will have the biggest impact on your organization in the future?

Succeeding in the new strategic environment requires levels of responsiveness and agility never before demanded of our forces. The U.S. Defense Department must transform from its historical emphasis on ships, guns, tanks and planes to a focus on information, knowledge and actionable intelligence.

Defense transformation hinges on the recognition that information is the department’s greatest source of power. Information can be leveraged to allow decision makers at all levels to make better decisions faster and to act sooner. Ensuring that timely and trusted information is available where it is needed, when it is needed and to those who need it is at the heart of the capability necessary to conduct network-centric operations.

Transforming to a network-centric information environment requires people, processes and technology working together to enable timely and trusted access to information as well as information sharing and collaboration among those involved. Instead of pushing information out based on individually engineered and predetermined interfaces, network centricity ensures that users at any level can both take what they need and contribute what they know.

While the technological change will be significant, the cultural shift may be even more challenging. For the force to be agile, data can no longer be owned—it must be shared. And, the associated policy, procedures, systems and tools must change as well. The implications are as significant for industry as they are for the Defense Department.

Implementing a service-oriented architecture (SOA) is key to network centricity. The SOA is an information technology strategy for structuring capabilities by easily linking chunks of applications such as services: automated tools that warfighters and business and intelligence officers—anyone in the department with a mission in need of that service—can understand and use readily. In essence, a service is performed any time an output is produced.

For example, an SOA will allow someone to link “get weather” with “get target list” and “get asset status” services to build a mission plan without going to separate organizations or information stores. In this way, authorized users throughout the enterprise can employ a U.S. Army service in combination, perhaps, with U.S. Central Command and Defense Logistics Agency services to perform their jobs.

By using an SOA, capability providers can reuse what already exists rather than recreating it every time. New capabilities can be fielded much more quickly, greatly increasing military agility. Most important, the need for time-consuming and individually engineered point-to-point interfaces is eliminated.

This approach presents several challenges to the department. First, governance is critical in an SOA. This strategy will not work if users throughout the enterprise are permitted to initiate and build their own services individually and to choose their favorite technologies. For example, multiple weather services can be supported if they use consistent interfaces and technology standards. Defining and enforcing those standards is a major department challenge, particularly in a dynamic technology environment.

The second challenge is to create an enterprise infrastructure that enables users to find, use and trust the services available. Additionally, the infrastructure must allow users to contribute their services for use by others as well as for potential consumers to trust the integrity of providers. An infrastructure that is fractured and stovepiped will prevent the department from realizing the agility offered by an SOA and ultimately thwart network centricity. A departmentwide culture change will be required.

The department’s shift to an SOA also will impact industry. While some standards have been settled, different approaches have been taken to implement those standards. Companies will posture to have their implementation become the standard approach. Industry needs to move beyond entangled discussions of standards implementation and apply their intellectual capital to real-world mission challenges. Collaboration is likely to be the basis for the true innovation required to attain the network-centric vision.

The department can no longer afford to buy and implement multiple competing technologies and still create a network-centric information environment that enables flexibility and agility. The private sector can help the Defense Department move beyond the lengthy system-focused stovepiped acquisition processes by enabling network centricity so decision makers can make better decisions faster and can act sooner.

Our adversary is networked. The department cannot transform to a network-centric force if the status quo is merely maintained and expanded. Patching stovepipes together will fail in a world in which information demands are abundant, time lines are shrinking and partners cannot be predicted. In short, the current “network” is made of information silos that cannot talk to each other unless pre-wired to do so, cannot scale to the levels of interaction and interdependence we know will exist, and cannot accommodate the unknown and unknowable. If the current approach is continued, we will prove to be fragile, not agile. A successful shift to an SOA is essential and at the heart of connecting people with information.