Convergence Aids the Edge

April 2010
By Robert K. Ackerman
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A U.S. soldier sets up a satellite communications antenna for voice and data tactical communications during rescue and relief efforts in Haiti. The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) is restructuring its infosphere to allow users at the edge to access and share the information that they need in the form that they want.

Building a new core is DISA’s way of supporting national leaders and warfighters.

The Defense Information Systems Agency is confronting the uncertain future of warfare by aiming to provide its customers with whatever choices they may need to deal with whatever future they may face. The goal is to allow them to choose their information services instead of force them into systems that might be ineffective when a new type of conflict emerges.

Just as fighting forces no longer can predict the type of conflict that lurks around the corner of the calendar, military information system specialists cannot anticipate exactly what type of information their customers will want and in what form. The fog of war is further clouded by the uncertainty of technology, as hitherto unknown capabilities may drive the needs of warfighters and decision makers.

These uncertainties are forcing planners to build around flexibility rather than certainty. Instead of trying to establish an information architecture that can accommodate any anticipated request from edge customers, the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) is configuring its core operations to provide options so that edge users are able to access the information and services they need.

These efforts are complicated by a concurrent move under mandate from the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, or BRAC. DISA is moving its headquarters and other elements into a new facility at Fort Meade, Maryland. That effort must be accommodated in concert with constant networking and information sharing duties (see box, below).

Lt. Gen. Carroll F. Pollett, USA, is the director of DISA. Among Gen. Pollett’s top priorities are support to the national leadership and the warfighter and managing the ongoing BRAC. These two activities are not exclusive, as each must be carried out amid the other.

It is that support to the edge that is defining—as well as driving—the changes going on in DISA, the general states. The agency has engaged warfighters and leaders to determine their requirements now and for the future. The agency seeks to employ technology to address three major areas: enterprise infrastructure; command and control (C2) and information sharing; and operation and assurance. These three areas form the foundation of DISA’s new campaign plan, which sets a course for the agency over the next few years.

This campaign plan aims at building an enterprise infrastructure that is based on standards and common approaches and focuses on Internet protocol (IP) and standard computing platforms. The plan would merge many networking activities under a large umbrella.

Gen. Pollett explains that support to the edge involves more than providing services to traditional customers. The edge includes elements such as business processes, acquisition and intelligence, to name a few. So, the agency must ensure that these aspects are taken care of—and this may involve partnerships with combatant commands, agencies, the services and other parties.

“It’s not just about more bandwidth,” he says. “It’s about this convergence of transport, computing, network security and enterprise services that will give us the agility and responsiveness that we need to support the users.”

The campaign plan calls for the integration of terrestrial, wireless and satellite communications. This construct would comprise communications, computing and information capabilities and services. It would protect critical infostructure by removing activities from the edge to reduce the attack surface. It also would enable the Defense Department to transition to a cloud computing environment.

“We are experiencing a lack of predictability today across the entire spectrum of operations,” the general states. “As a combat support unit, we must understand the challenges that we are up against. In doing that, it helps us better if we focus on the users’ requirements and where we’re challenged to deliver the capabilities that are expected and demanded.”

Input from the user community has given DISA planners a better picture of long-term capabilities that may be required by users. Yet, the agency is not planning on future missions so much as it is planning to be able to address whatever unknown needs may emerge. “I’m not worried so much about what we have to accomplish today,” Gen. Pollett states. “I’m worried about setting the conditions to be able to accomplish what we’re going to have to do tomorrow.”

To succeed in that approach, DISA’s thrust is to build a true enterprise infrastructure around the concept of convergence. Where the infrastructure lacks capacity and diversity, the agency hopes to converge those types of capabilities to serve the entire DISA customer realm. The result would be closer to attaining a true network-centric environment, Gen. Pollett says.

“We are looking hard at this enterprise infrastructure in terms of the terrestrial layer, the air layer and the space layer,” the general relates. “You can’t stovepipe; it must be an integrated solution set that gives us optimum diversity and capacity to leverage these enterprise services.”

For the terrestrial layer, DISA is focusing on all the areas of the world where it lacks diversity or capacity. The agency is examining where it stages its content delivery capabilities and how it globally integrates transport with computing. That is vital for ensuring that edge users do not have to reach back to the bigger computing centers in the United States for their every need, the general observes.

In some cases, DISA already is managing some content from the United States instead of from its forward operating centers. User input allows the agency to use technology to position information where the user says it is needed. This content is hosted in the agency’s computer centers, and it is expandable when it moves to the edge user.

For the air layer, DISA is working with the services on issues of moving information between the air and terrestrial layers. Similarly, it is looking at seams and gaps in the space layer. This includes working with industry for both military and commercial satellite use to close those gaps, the general notes.

“All the pieces that allow us to be able to service the user at the edge are not functional if you do not have an enterprise infrastructure that ensures delivery of those capabilities,” he declares. “It’s not about data, it’s about information; and it’s the collaborating and sharing of that information, and the confidence by the user that the information and the networks are protected, that allow for decisive decision making.”

DISA is trying to streamline the information technology acquisition process to speed new technologies into the network, the general says. High on his list is to introduce more flexibility into the requirements process. That already is taking place in some areas, Gen. Pollett notes, and the agency continues to work toward a better partnership with industry.

The agency also is trying to increase user input into the requirements process. “How do you get the operator at the ‘right seat ride’ of the engineer so you can be sure you get the requirement right?” he asks. This would help ensure that whatever technology or system is developed can be used effectively by the operator.


A soldier explores situational awareness data during an exercise. Forces in the field are requiring more types of information pushed further down the chain of command, and DISA must be ready to deliver that information regardless of the conflict or its location.

Another key would be to build metrics to allow DISA to measure production. It is important for the agency to measure the ability to produce a capability on its established timeline. “It is as big an effort to measure a plan’s success as to plan it in the first place,” the general declares.

DISA wants solutions that can function in an open architecture and will be effective in a service-oriented environment. These must not be proprietary solutions that create interoperability problems, and they must be adaptable and agile enough to allow DISA to address both short-term and long-term user demands, Gen. Pollett states.

The agency is seeking integrated ground platforms with communications and computing capabilities. It seeks to transition the Defense Department to agile unified communications. And, mobile information access and sharing are in great demand.

“We’re already seeing that the user wants to be mobile,” Gen. Pollett points out. “We need to enhance that. We need to complement and work with the services to move toward communications on the move—whether in a tactical environment or a strategic environment—to ensure the information that user needs is there for decision making.”

DISA is leveraging new technologies from laboratories, academia and industry. It continues to work with those three sectors to prepare for whatever innovations might emerge for the agency to adopt. Gen. Pollett notes that one recent development, machine-to-machine application, allows the agency to anticipate and view issues within its infostructure before a connection is lost. “We’re making phenomenal efforts in that department in terms of how we’re able to shape and affect the networks to provide assured services,” he points out.

The agency also is focusing on network configuration—particularly how to build in security tiers that would allow a dynamic response capability to reduce the attack surface. The agency is working to provide unclassified information sharing and classified information sharing via a cross-domain solution. And, in Iraq and Afghanistan, information must be shared with coalition forces and nongovernmental organizations.

“The strategic environment has collapsed inside of the tactical environment, and we’re never going back,” Gen. Pollett states. “The demand for information for decision making has increased significantly, and it’s going to continue to increase. We have the opportunity to meet that requirement.”

The coming years will see a DISA work force restructured along the lines of skill sets and capabilities, Gen. Pollett offers. Technology development will be the lead agent for this trend, with the agency probably having more software engineers. The general expects DISA to be staffed with more people from the generation that truly understands IP technology as the agency moves away from its traditional circuit-based approach.

The agency is increasing its reliance on voice over IP. Yet, it is not yet committing to everything over IP, the general allows. Security and survivability factors will continue to mandate the use of some complementary circuit-based capabilities for the foreseeable future.

DISA Campaign Plan:

Realignment Promises to Change DISA

The Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) move that the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) is undergoing entails closing the agency’s headquarters and other leased billets in the national capital region and moving 4,000 people to Maryland. Lt. Gen. Carroll F. Pollett, USA, DISA director, relates that the agency has assembled an aggressive personnel plan aimed at keeping as many people after the move as possible. This plan includes incentives to persuade people to move with the agency. A recent survey implies that as much as 65 percent of DISA’s work force will make the move with the agency. Some of these people will commute from their current homes to FortMeade, the general notes. Others, especially those who live south or west of DISA’s Arlington, Virginia, headquarters, may face too long a commute and must either relocate or leave the agency. Logistical and family concerns such as schools also are playing a role in decisions by DISA employees.

To replace those who cannot make the shift to Maryland, DISA is pursuing an aggressive recruiting program. The agency already has held three job fairs in Maryland—one of which was attended by 5,000 people, the general adds. Senior leadership participated in this job fair, which included interviews for positions ranging from comptroller to software engineers. The agency is building a talent database so that it can recruit as needed for the new FortMeade headquarters.

As with many other organizations facing a BRAC move, DISA is taking the opportunity to assess and modernize its activities where possible. Gen. Pollett relates that the agency is examining its legacy tendencies, particularly technologies but also including core competencies. For example, the agency has some infrastructure duplication in the operate and assure element. This may involve command posts in terms of “who reports to whom,” he says, as well as how that information is sent to the operations center. Technology may allow DISA to consolidate command posts and reduce their number, which in turn will allow the agency to redeploy their personnel more efficiently.

The move provides DISA with an opportunity for incorporating leap-ahead technologies for information sharing and collaboration, the general says. This will advance both external and internal activities.

“I’m pretty optimistic about the move,” Gen. Pollett says. “I’m impressed with the energy of the people who are planning to make the move, and there is a tremendous amount of thinking among the second- and third-tier leadership of how to get the right people in the right places in terms of mission, roles and functions to complement our overarching mission requirement.”

This DISA leadership is evaluating the agency’s mission focus as well as its traditional activities. “Our priorities have been established by the user,” the general notes, adding that this will guide any reallocation of the work force.

The general notes that the agency has a decentralized execution process, with its field commanders dispersed around the country and the world. They work on day-to-day issues of network capabilities with the customer base, including the services. Those field personnel will not be influenced substantially by the move, and their activities should not be affected.

However, the dispersal of DISA personnel between headquarters and the field will be examined. Some processes are duplicated in both, and BRAC will enable the agency to reassess whether more of those processes should be shifted to the field. For example, provisioning is the process by which networks are brought into the infostructure. It is done both in headquarters and in the field, and DISA will be examining whether that balance should be shifted away from headquarters.

DISA’s command operations center will move in a phased plan that will begin with an advance party into the new facilities. When that group is in place, the operations center capabilities will shift to the new facility. The agency trains for that on a regular basis, he adds.

Gen. Pollett describes the new headquarters at FortMeade as “a phenomenal facility.” At the top of the list of attributes is unity of command, he says. Being in a single campus will allow DISA personnel to collaborate and work better. He believes that the first personnel moves may take place this fall.