DISA Seeks Ideas, Innovation and Collaboration

October 2011
By Max Cacas, SIGNAL Magazine


Teri Takai, chief information officer (CIO), U.S. Defense Department, leads a panel discussion with the CIOs of the four military services at the 2011 Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) Customer and Industry Forum. Participants include (l-r): Takai; Lt. Gen. William Lord, USAF, Air Force chief of warfighting integration and CIO; Lt. Gen. Susan Lawrence, USA, Army CIO/G-6; Vice Adm. Kendall Card, USN, deputy chief of naval operations for information dominance/director of naval intelligence; and Brig. Gen. Kevin Nally, USMC, director, command, control, communications and computers/CIO of the Marine Corps.

The U.S. military’s information technology agency seeks industry help amidst growing challenges and lean times ahead.

For the leadership of the Defense Information Systems Agency, the opportunity to meet and greet with the contractors and companies that supply mission-critical applications and hardware is vital to their mission. That is why DISA has been holding its Customer and Industry Forum for the last several years.

But this year’s conference saw the head of the Defense Department’s top information technology organization sprinting from one exhibit hall booth to another at a trade show saying, “I need ideas!”

Lt. Gen. Carroll Pollett, USA, director of the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), did just that as the 2011 DISA Customer and Industry Forum opened its Technology Showcase at the Baltimore Convention Center in August. The Technology Showcase was co-sponsored by AFCEA International.

The general told reporters that he and his senior staff used what he described as a “shotgun start” on their first tour of the exhibit area. “We just kind of worked the room, in terms of telling industry that we were interested in what they were doing,” he said, in the areas of digital communication technology.

“I think I got through two rows” of exhibitors, Gen. Pollett stated, adding, “I do think it’s important, if you’re going to take the time to engage with people, to take the time to listen to them and hear what they have to say.”

In a wide-ranging keynote speech opening the conference, Gen. Pollett noted that in the past six months, the U.S. military has found itself supporting as many as six simultaneous operations, each different in scope, each making different kinds of demands on the Pentagon’s information infrastructure, and each providing different lessons learned.

Describing the military response to the Japanese tsunami and earthquake in March, for example, Gen. Pollett explained that “capacity is not enough.” He discussed the ample bandwidth of network connectivity available to U.S. forces, but allowed as to how they ultimately found themselves stymied by the extensive damage from the initial tsunami and the later quake.

“If you don’t have the diversity [of technologies] to complement capacity, then you truly do not have resilience, and without resilience, you can’t assure survivability,” he stated.

In Iraq, about which Gen. Pollett discussed the transition to Iraqi security forces taking over from departing U.S. troops, the challenge has been one of providing network connectivity transitioning from fiber/terrestrial to satellite-delivered broadband, supporting not only U.S. military and civilian agencies such as the State Department, but also other coalition partners.

Gen. Pollett said that escalating cyberattacks against both public and private networks this past spring made cyberspace the sixth operation that was handled by DISA and the newly created U.S. Cyber Command.

He also noted initiatives that other military services have started to explore better ways of using information technology. The Army has been the lead service in moving military email away from individual servers situated at Army bases worldwide to enterprise email located in the cloud. The Navy has been using Microsoft SharePoint to share information more efficiently at its many ports globally in a model dubbed enterprise service centers. The Air Force, he said, is developing the service/application environment as a platform, prompting a service-wide review of every software application.

Returning to his entreaties to industry representatives in the audience, Gen. Pollett urged them to help him and the DISA staff solve challenges in the areas of mission assurance, cyber readiness inspections, mobile operations and coalition information sharing.

John Chambers, chief executive officer of  Cisco Systems Incorporated, told conference attendees that, “Collaboration will be the productivity tool of the next decade.” Generally, it is tough to anticipate what challenges and opportunities will present themselves five years from now, he continued.

Several years ago, for example, his company designed and built one of the first routers capable of handling one million telephone calls per second. In the first year, he said, they sold only seven, with many telecommunications industry experts wondering to what purpose a person would put such a device.

Five years later, Chambers allowed, Cisco had sold more than 5,000 units.

Today, Chambers said, he believes that much the same phenomenon is happening with other media. As a result, Cisco now is making routers that are capable of handling as many as 500 video feeds simultaneously. He said that because the trend is toward more and more video streaming to everything from individual desktop PCs to mobile devices, his firm now designs all of its products to be able to handle video in one form or another.

Because all information is digital, every device now attached to the network—including popular new mobile devices—are network nodes, Chambers explained. In the near future, all such devices will have security built in, and also will take advantage of “intelligence in the network” to help secure the devices. And the new environment will be one in which “security is not an option.” As a result of improvements in both hardware and software, Chambers said he envisions improved security and reliability across the enterprise environment.

Products, he said, need to be designed to work together and easily address business demands and at the same time be able to adapt to new technologies still on the drawing boards. He explained that he also considers cloud computing “the most network-centric architecture ever,” which will enable most, if not all, of the collaboration capabilities envisioned for the future.

On the final day of the DISA conference, a panel of the CIOs from the four branches of the military provided industry representatives with a look at the challenges they face in providing enhanced digital technologies to the warfighter.

Defense Department CIO Teri Takai began the panel by asking Lt. Gen. Susan Lawrence, USA, Army CIO/G-6, to offer an update on that service’s migration to enterprise email. The project was delayed this past spring as Army information technology dealt with unanticipated technical problems.

Gen. Lawrence emphasized that the Army’s transition to enterprise email had nothing to do with email as an application, per se. Rather, she said, it is about “common identity management—so that I can take my CAC [Common Access Card] anywhere in the world, to any government computer, and the network will recognize me.” Gen. Lawrence also hinted that the next 24 months will be critical to the Army’s successfully completing the migration to enterprise email, and she added that other goals include addressing data storage as well as how that service branch collaborates with other branches to fight. She said the final goal, which she called enterprise collaboration services, is expected to launch this month.

Gen. Lawrence noted that since March, the Army has moved more than 90,000 users to enterprise email. She explained that in the process of that migration, she and her staff uncovered a “dirty” network: “We found firewalls where there shouldn’t have been firewalls. We found software that couldn’t talk to other software. We’ve had to come in and bring in a team to just clean up the network.” At the time that she spoke at the conference, Gen. Lawrence said that if tests of the repaired network were successful, the Army immediately planned to return to its original goal of moving as many as 1,000 users per week to enterprise email.

On the question of cloud computing, Lt. Gen. William Lord, USAF, Air Force chief of Warfighting Integration and CIO, said he would be happy to migrate some of his service’s mission-critical applications and data storage to what he called a device-agnostic cloud. He added that could be a private cloud, hosted on military-owned servers; a public cloud, hosted on industry-owned servers; or a hybrid cloud, hosted on a combination of private and military-owned server farms.

Gen. Lawrence said that, on a related note, the key to successful cloud computing would be the successful development of a common operating environment—one that presents a consistent, but fully capable and fully secure computing environment to the end users no matter what kind of device they bring to the battlefield. Brig. Gen. Kevin Nally, USMC, director, command, control, communications and computers/CIO of the Marine Corps, insisted that any cloud-computing environment must be able to function in the most austere conditions in which Marines normally operate.

Gen. Nally also generated some interesting dialogue when the conversation turned back to the seemingly innocuous subject of military email domain names. Both Gen. Lawrence and Vice Adm. Kendall Card, USN, deputy chief of naval operations for information dominance/director of naval intelligence, said it was best that all the services unite email addresses under the .mil Internet domain for efficiency and consistency. But both Gen. Lord and Gen. Nally insisted that their services, for reasons of pride and other considerations, would not stand for losing their “usmc.mil” or “us.af.mil” email addresses, at least not without some additional discussion.

Gen. Nally noted that the self-perception of some Marines involved in information assurance changed when he began referring to what they do as cybersecurity; in some cases, he said, “They now refer to themselves as ‘cyberMarines,’” which drew a laugh from the crowd.

And, making a pitch for more shared information technology services among the military branches, Gen. Lawrence related how two military services sharing one airfield in Italy inadvertently had laid separate fiber optic networks at the same field. Several weeks later, she said, yet an additional service proposed laying yet another separate fiber network around the same facility in Milan. “Stop the madness!” she quipped, adding, “In the future, we all need to say, who’s the EA [enterprise architect] on a network, and fall in.”

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