Web-Based Services Move Closer to Full Operation

May 2008
By Rita Boland

Two airmen work in a communications van at a forward location. The Net-Centric Enabled Services content discovery and delivery product line saves deployed troops time and bandwidth because they are able to cache and store information locally. 
Capabilities that significantly alter how the military and its partners collaborate are poised for their full implementation.

A major Defense Information Systems Agency program is serving as a transformational change agent for the U.S. Defense Department by blazing a path toward the much desired network-centric method of data sharing. The system, which enables military information exchange in a trusted environment with dynamic and flexible users and needs, already has begun providing capabilities to customers. It is about to enter the initial operational test and evaluation phase.

The Net-Centric Enterprise Services (NCES) are a set of capabilities that support network-centric warfare operations and information sharing. These services provide the framework to enable warfighting, business and intelligence activities of the Global Information Grid (GIG). Some of the network-centric services, such as information security and identity management, act as foundational blocks while others support user needs to collaborate or access authoritative data sources. The latter category includes chat rooms and information discovery tools.

The NCES allows users to find and access relevant information and to expose data for others to discover. Users also will be able to collaborate more effectively by employing video and audio Web conferencing, instant messenging and file sharing. The NCES enables the distribution of data to forward-deployed areas and increases data access. The system employs service-oriented architecture (SOA) to evolve military capabilities and to share information.

The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), which has responsibility for the NCES, is developing and creating necessary services through its ABC—adopt, buy, create—acquisition model. The approach allows the agency to find the best capabilities and then to deliver them to users without having to develop each service from scratch. According to Rebecca Harris, program director for GIG enterprise services at DISA, the policy is a main reason DISA has been able to acquire the NCES capabilities and deliver them in an incremental and quick fashion, saving money and time.

The NCES concept was approved in 2004, and Milestone B was achieved in March 2007. Milestone C, which authorizes the initial operational test and evaluation phase, is expected near the publication date of this article. The Joint Interoperability Test Command performed the testing with oversight from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Operational Test and Evaluation Directorate.

The outcome of the test and evaluation will be used in the Full Deployment Decision Review, which will give NCES personnel the authority to scale up services to support a greater number of users, weapons systems and business systems and to move to full operational capability during a 12-month period. The services will be exposed in registries and available to a larger military user base supporting all branches, agencies and combatant commands. “It really is getting new information and services visible and accessible so they can be used department-wide,” Harris explains.

The fully operational NCES will be very different in nature from its original conception. It began as a software development program, but with the advent of DISA’s new acquisition strategy, program officials started leveraging ABC and transformed the program into managed service providers. Personnel began to take advantage of the best practices and products already available as opposed to developing capabilities from the bottom up. Services already in operation are performing well, and DISA personnel are looking forward to rolling out capabilities more broadly soon.

Harris describes the NCES as a transformational change agent for the Defense Department. DISA has encountered several policies or traditional methods of achieving results that the agency has to change to move to network centricity. One of the major adjustments has been the switch from a “need to know” environment to a “need to share” environment. Throughout testing of the NCES, the strategy of officials has been to create new solutions to problems. When they make a decision to deploy a capability, they question how to make it work in the network-centric environment and how to perform operations. DISA wants to ensure that customers have the best end-user experience possible. Harris believes that in addition to delivering state-of-the-art capabilities, the NCES has laid the foundation to transform how DISA tests, certifies and operationally sustains capabilities in the network-centric environment.

The NCES capabilities are categorized into four product lines: collaboration, content discovery and delivery, SOA Foundation and the Army Knowledge Online/Defense Knowledge Online (AKO/DKO) portal. Under the collaboration product line, DISA uses two collaboration tools referred to as Button 1 and Button 2, which are both commercial-based technologies and products. The arrangement is innovative for the military because operational users can select which service best fits their needs. As more customers select one button (or service) versus the other, the capability that experiences higher use obtains a greater Defense Department market share.

According to Edward Siomacco, vice program director for GIG enterprise services at DISA, “Vendors would want to add more capability on their own to add more market shares and users. That’s how they’re paid.” The collaboration tools are Web-based, so anyone with a browser can access the capabilities without major software downloads or local servers. This arrangement fosters collaboration between military users and personnel outside of the Defense Department. For example, in the event of a homeland emergency, the National Guard could establish a collaboration session with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local first responders. U.S. Northern Command is particularly interested in that capability for situations such as hurricanes when the command would have to collaborate with the military, first responders and other local and state governments.

The next product line—content discovery and delivery—is akin to Web search engines commonly used in the commercial world. The capabilities are available on the secret Internet protocol router network (SIPRNet) and the nonsecure Internet protocol router network (NIPRNet). To provide the content discovery and delivery tools, DISA went outside the Defense Department to the intelligence community and adopted an intelligence link capability for searches, adapting it for military needs. It provides a federated search capability, a centralized search capability and an enterprise catalogue.

By federating with various search engines across the military, the NCES offers users broader results. The centralized search engine operates in similar fashion to civilian applications, providing centralized results for the Defense Department. The enterprise catalogue enables users without a search engine to expose content. It allows disadvantaged users to register their contents for others to view.

The content delivery aspect of the product line is referred to as the GIG Content Delivery Service. It offers global forward caching locally to more forward-deployed users and provides global intelligence routing of content. It also is available on the NIPRNet and SIPRNet. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and U.S. Central Command currently use the capability to allow forward-deployed personnel to pull imagery data from the NGA to the area of responsibility. According to Siomacco, the tool saves time and bandwidth because deployed troops can use the forward storage and caching to pull information closest to them as opposed to going all the way back to the NGA or other places in the United States for the information every time.

The SOA Foundation product line is made up of many components and services and has the primary purpose of enabling SOA applications and Web services across the Defense Department. In April, four new services that were contracted last November became available under the SOA Foundation. Some of the line’s capabilities include service discovery, which is a registry where Web services are visible to software developers for the purpose of reuse and metadata discovery. The SOA Foundation has a Defense Department enterprise service discovery registry and Defense Department metadata registry. Metadata, vocabularies, service descriptions and other items and tools can be posted for NCES users to view. There is also a publish and subscribe capability to connect applications and data sources to one another. This helps create interoperability with legacy applications that are not SOA-enabled. The mediation service helps translate between network-centric and non-network-centric data sets.

Another capability under the SOA Foundation product line is people discovery. For the first time, the entire Defense Department population’s contact information has been collected in white pages. Personnel can use the directory to find e-mail addresses, and they eventually will be able to use it to locate telephone numbers and the organizations to which individuals are assigned.

Two important NCES service security capabilities overlay all the other services. The first provides certifications such as public key infrastructure for NIPRNet and SIPRNet. The second provides attributes for making decisions about people, machines and data, such as whether an individual has a clearance. When robust certificate validation services are coupled with attribute services, officials can make policy decisions on accessing all the other services. “That’s moving toward attribute-based access control identity management architecture,” Siomacco says.

To ensure the health and welfare of the SOA Foundation services, the product line includes enterprise service management. This capability acts as a daily help desk. Automated tools monitor whether services are available and how they are performing.

The final product line—the portal—enables users to take advantage of the available services. DISA adopted the AKO and morphed it into DKO to serve as the access tool between personnel and tools. DKO has grown to the point that it now acts as the primary access to services for NCES users.

As the NCES moves forward, agency personnel are examining the shortfalls in the program and finding solutions. One area that could improve, according to Harris, is federation. DISA is working on how to federate all the effective SOA efforts underway across the Defense Department so they are seamless to the warfighter. The military branches are developing their own services in many instances, and DISA wants to take advantage of those efforts, leverage them in real time and reuse them when appropriate.

Protocols need attention too. “We need some more efficient bandwidth protocol,” Siomacco says. When services extend to the tactical edge, communications bandwidth becomes critical, and users and providers want to save as much and make it as efficient as possible.

Web Resources
Net-Centric Enterprise Services: www.disa.mil/nces/
Global Information Grid Bandwidth Expansion: www.disa.mil/main/prodsol/gig_be.html
Defense Knowledge Online: www.nowaitmedia.com/brac/index.asp


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