March to consolidation

A decade of Army IT backroom network consolidation comes to fruition in the Global Network Enterprise Construct.

A decade of Army information technology backroom consolidation will find its apex in a conceptual effort to manage service networks and applications as a single enterprise, according to proponents of an effort known as the Global Network Enterprise Construct (GNEC).

The result will be enhanced mobility, allowing brigade combat teams to deploy to new locations without adjusting to different file systems and applications or dislodging their tactical servers from their racks, current and former Army officials said. It also will save money through enterprise application management while improving cybersecurity through better network visibility. The GNEC concept has influenced Army strategy for about a year, but it was not until March 2 that it received the official stamp of approval from Army Chief of Staff George Casey.

“No matter where a modular brigade is in the world, when it looks up to the network, it will see a theater signal command that looks exactly the same, even if it’s in its home in the continental United States,” said Vernon Bettencourt, who retired in 2008 as the Army’s acting chief information officer.

Sound proposition

About a decade ago, Army organizations started recognizing the virtue of consolidating IT operations into larger networks, that logic has only recently extended to cover the entire service, said Army Col. Mark Baines, deputy commander of the Fifth Signal Command, based in Mannheim, Germany. The command has already led significant IT consolidation in its European Command area of responsibility and is setting up one of the first Army network service centers (NSCs). Under GNEC, the Army’s many networks and local configurations will integrate into five NSCs with collective responsibility for Army IT anywhere in the world, including cybersecurity. The European Command’s NSC has achieved initial operating capability, “though we’re far from raising the flag on finished,” Baines said.

Fifth Signal Command efforts will receive a serious test this year during an annual exercise called “Austere Challenge.” The command will support a unit located at Fort Bragg, N.C., that simulates a move from its home base to Europe. The unit will actually move locations, albeit within North Carolina, and it will leave its servers at the base. When the unit reconnects to the Global Information Grid (GIG), it will turn on a collaboration tool called Command Post of the Future and access data from servers located at a facility in Landstuhl, Germany. “We will show that we can virtually move that organization from one area to another,” Baines said.

A main catalyst for GNEC is the Army’s larger effort to transform into a faster, more flexible expeditionary organization based on a modular organization, said Army Col. Clinton Bigger, chief of the network integration division of LandWarNet — the Army's name for its portion of the GIG — and lead for the GNEC synchronization cell.

If a unit deploys abroad, “when they get to another country, Afghanistan or Iraq or wherever the case may be, the connection point — the transmission media, the data processing center and the applications — will be constructed from the same standards and common applications,” Bigger said.

One advantage of GNEC will be an integrated active directory across the force, ending the problem of multiple e-mail addresses. Army personnel can already get an immutable e-mail address through their Army Knowledge Online account, but GNEC will create a single identity at the operational and network level rather than just within a Web account, Baines said.

Shutting down local servers with the assurance that a remote facility can support you just as well is a tricky proposition. Unsurprisingly, there’s a contingent that lacks trust in the process. “We call them, affectionately, ‘server huggers,’" Baines said. "Certain units just love to hug their servers.” 

What’s more, the shift to remote servers also can entail the removal of nonstandard applications — not exactly an endearing proposition for users who would argue that the approved list is somehow lacking. The Fifth Signal Command started by migrating e-mail exchange and help-desk services, chosen for their universally utilitarian properties. When it comes to specialized applications for specialized communities, such as the logistics, intelligence or medical communities, potential migrations are studied, Baines said. “We have to look at where they are, what sort of security requirements…is it a project of record” or something else, he added.

In ongoing remote server pilot programs based in the United States, “user experience is that, for the most part, the user does not know that their servers have been relocated to [director of information management ] or [area processing centers] locations,” said Daniel Bradford, senior technical engineer of the Ninth Signal Command at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. The pilot programs, which began in 2007 before GNEC became an acceptable concept but during a time when the Army was already in a consolidating mood, involve about 25,000 users and 100 servers spread among three Army Installations, he added.

Technologies on the agenda for application standardization include collaboration tools and battle command systems, Bigger said. If a particular organization has a unique battle command need, it’s possible that supporting functionality could be built into the standard battle command instantiation, he added.

Driving savings

Standardization streamlines operations and enables modular constructs of brigade combat teams, and it should also save money, GNEC proponents say.

“I’m convinced that it saves tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars per year to have standardized enterprise licenses and hardware bulk buys,” Bettencourt said.

One of the most difficult aspects of making GNEC a reality is fostering trust, Baines said. “It’s a paradigm shift you have to make of not having your own suite of services,” he added.

The other pressing issue is funding, he said. Though GNEC ultimately should save money, in the short term, it still costs money to develop. And right now, GNEC isn’t a funded project, Bigger said.

That could change starting in fiscal 2011, he added. Some aspects of GNEC have prior funding. Some procurements will be included under review spending plans, he said, but no final decision has been made on what the Army will need to buy.

Collaboration tools could easily fail to make the list. “We already have collaboration tools, so we don’t necessarily have to buy a new one,” Bigger said. Another possibility is adopting the Defense Information Systems Agency collaboration tools that are available through its Net-Centric Enterprise Services program, Bigger said.

Virtualization tools might be on the list of planned acquisitions. “We are looking at it, assessing that capability,” Bigger said. “If you look at the direction industry is going, that’s the environment they’re going in — virtualized networks, reaping the benefits of cloud computing…. We could do without it, correct, but I think that we’re pursuing virtualization because it could reap some economies and some efficiencies.”

Proponents also contend that GNEC would help improve cybersecurity. At times, cybersecurity professionals can disagree on whether it’s more secure to limit centralization to staunch a security breach from becoming a global problem, but the Army comes down on the other side of the argument, Bigger said.

“It’s a solid argument,” he said, “but the benefits of the centralized network from an efficiency perspective and from a protect and reactionary perspective clearly outweigh those of a decentralized network.”