Achieving Multidomain Operations through Virtualization: Sponsored Content

April 1, 2021
By Henry S. Kenyon

New converged network hosting platforms help DOD shift to a new way of warfighting.

Facing renewed challenges from peer and near-peer adversaries, the U.S. Department of Defense is returning to a command and control concept embracing joint and allied operations with the added domains of space and cyberspace adding to the mission space. But while this reorientation appears to revisit older Cold War-era strategies on the surface, it is the end result of careful analysis by the Pentagon to make up for operational deficiencies and neglected capabilities from two decades of counterinsurgency-oriented warfare.

Known as Multi Domain Operations (MDO), the concept itself is still being implemented as the doctrine was recently developed. MDO can trace some of its origins to efforts such as the Army’s Air Land Battle strategy in the 1990s. This doctrine shifted to counter insurgency after 2001 with an emphasis on multinational, joint operations, explains retired Army Col. Matt Holt.

Over the last decade and a half, additional capabilities were added to the DoD’s operational and conceptual toolbox such as cyberspace as an operational domain. This, coupled with new technologies and their potential, put the services on the path to MDO.

“Doctrinally, it’s in early implementation. But now the struggle for the services is to figure out how do we take the emerging and innovative technology that has just exploded on the commercial side and apply that into military domains with weapons systems that have increased lethality, increased range, increased capabilities on top of the information technologies that enable some of that capability to occur,” Holt says.

An important part of MDO and an area where Trace Systems Inc. (Trace) made its reputation is with coalition information sharing. Trace built and runs the DoD’s only fully operational virtualized data center, which was originally set up to help support these kinds of joint missions, explains Therman Farley, vice president of Technology Solutions at Trace Systems Inc.

The increase in coalition joint warfighting operations and the evolution of MDO created a use case and opportunity for the company to provide the military with the tools it needed to match its evolving goals. To meet these needs, Trace developed the Modular Dynamically Reconfigurable Integrated Virtualized Environment or M-DRIVE, a software/hardware platform using virtualization techniques, software-defined networking (SDN), to enable multitenant network hosting on a single hosting platform.

As a capability, it’s designed to be scaled and modified to meet warfighters’ needs at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels, Farley says. Tools like M-DRIVE will help the DoD’s transition to MDO once it is fully mature, but it will also support and facilitate the services’ complementary use of distributed information domains, he adds.

Emerging Threats

The impetus behind the DoD’s move to MDO is the shift from counterinsurgency operations to the growing threat posed by peer- and near-peer adversaries. As the DoD shifts to counter these threats and adopt new technologies and capabilities, it seeks to do so cost effectively and efficiently without the need to reinvent certain capabilities if they are commercially available.

Trace’s expertise falls within the convergence of command and control (C2) intelligence as its platforms are designed to help commanders more effectively and efficiently operate in their mission environment. M-DRIVE’s revolutionary approach helps consolidate the DoD’s disparate hosting platforms across a battlefield or operational theater, providing the ability to converge legacy or new hosting platforms, Farley says.

M-DRIVE helps consolidate all those different layers of information into a coherent space for warfighters to act more effectively. Farley notes that it operates at secret-releasable security levels (important for coalition operations) and Trace is working to ultimately provide secret-level multitenancy and multisecurity level capability for MDO enablers such as Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2).

Converging a number of disparately hosted networks into a single platform offers several benefits. It lets the military continue using legacy networks without the need for costly acquisition of new technologies or user training. It also helps reduce units’ operational footprint because virtualization and automation means fewer pieces of equipment to move/manage and fewer warfighters are needed to operate and maintain them, notes retired Army Col. Brett Reister.

Trace’s platforms help the DoD cut the “flash to bang” time for decision makers, Farley explains. This flexibility also extends to that equipment being able to share information with other services’ or other nations’ command posts. The need for coalition information sharing that is at the heart of MDO is not a new thing. “We were fighting it back then—we just never realized we had a need for it,” Farley says.

M-DRIVE and Virtualization

Trace’s development of the DoD’s virtual data centers (VDC) gave its engineers the expertise to provide a hyper-converged C2 capability merging multiple different networks into a single pane of glass M-DRIVE is a progression of this work because it uses virtualization and SDN techniques to enable multitenant network hosting on a single platform, substantially reducing network hosting infrastructure while, providing advantages for logistics, power and administration.

“We took a bunch of stovepiped networks and put them into a single hyperconverged system. They remain secure and discrete fully capable environments, but they’re much more efficient because now they’re on a single platform,” Farley says.

From a security perspective, the M-DRIVE builds on Trace’s experience and reputation in developing virtualized data centers. In both cases, they received security certification from the National Security Agency, allowing them to manage secret data at the enterprise level, says Matthew Shadeed, retired Navy civilian engineer dual-hatted as the DoD CIO MPE chief engineer and NAVWAR MPE lead engineer. He added that in both cases, they received security certification from the National Cross Domain Strategy and Management Office.

The M-DRIVE takes the virtual data center’s secure and approved multitenant hosting capabilities and puts them at the tactical edge, Shadeed adds. The system has been approved to handle data at the secret releasable level and will soon expand to handle data at other security classifications via its set of secure off-the-shelf commercial hardware and software.

“This provides a secure software-defined data center capability that can apply to mission partner and multidomain operations,” Shadeed said.

Consolidating Operations

In today’s operational environment, when the services set up networks for command and control, they use individual server stacks—a single stovepiped environment used to run a network. The DoD operates multiple networks for operations and mission partner information sharing.

With M-DRIVE, Trace has built a platform that allows those multiple networks onto a resilient, secured multitenant hosting platform that plugs into the broader network operating environment, Holt explains.

“Basically we have taken the large footprint of a room full of equipment and shrunk it down to a small platform box that can host three or more networks and enable operations to move towards MDO,” Holt says, adding that the M-DRIVE would allow the services to reduce their legacy or new network hosting infrastructures by 30 to 50 percent.

“Think about the long-term operational implications of that, as well as the budget and cost savings implications over time. Of being able to cut your infrastructure in half because you’ve got a platform now that you can host multiple mission environments on as opposed to having separate infrastructure for each of those environments,” Holt adds.

When Trace developed the VDC, it used virtualization to quickly provision multiple enclaves with core email, chat, file sharing, VOIP and VTC services within a single secure multitenant hosting infrastructure, collapsing the amount of hardware needed to support DoD operations. The M-DRIVE takes this a step further, virtualizing the operational environments within a secure hyperconverged platform, which lets the government increase its operational flexibility and agility by reducing much of the physical infrastructure needed to support missions.

The platform also makes use of automation to help speed setup and installation. An M-DRIVE-supported mission environment can be deployed in a matter of hours, says Holt. By comparison, he notes it may take the services days to build and deploy a new mission environment with existing capabilities.

Use Cases

Several M-DRIVEs are in operational use testing with the Army and Navy and have supported several exercises in Europe in support of U.S. European Command, U.S. Africa Command and NATO. The Army has also tested two M-DRIVEs operationally at its Joint Warfighting Assessment 19 (JWA19) event, one operating at the Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) level and the other at the Multi-Domain Task Force (MDTF) level.

This MDTF was a concept that was tested operationally during the exercise using new technologies such as the M-DRIVE as a means to look at MDO’s doctrinal implications for and impact on warfighting, Holt says.

In the Navy’s case, the M-DRIVE was tested as part of a NATO operation aboard the command ship USS Mount Whitney. The platform was chosen because as a multinational exercise, there was a need for a technology that allowed the Navy to quickly switch between NATO and other coalition networks.

The M-DRIVE was also used in several other NATO exercises with the U.S. Navy, the Army and the Marine Corps, which allowed all the participants to interact with each other through a centralized network facilitated by the platform, Shadeed says. He notes that the next step for the platform is for it to move to a DoD program of record, so it becomes a standard cloud platform with tactical edge applications for U.S. forces.

In the future, Farley hopes to see M-DRIVE as an important tool supporting the DOD’s MDO and JADC2 doctrine and operations when they are fully implemented. He sees the rollout of new capabilities that enable the M-DRIVE’s ability to create a protected environment where U.S. forces and allied nations can work together and coordinate operations, a core aspect of MDO.

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