Boots on the ground, intell in the cloud

Cloud computing has revolutionized how the federal government stores and accesses data, but now the Army is taking it all the way to Afghanistan.

In an environment in which information can be the difference between life and death, cloud computing — and the rapid access to critical data and tools it offers — might never have been more important.

As the first tactical cloud operating in Afghanistan, the Army’s Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS-A) pools intelligence collected from the beginning of the war in Iraq up until today, aggregated from various databases for wider, faster and easier access and decision-making.

Army Col. Charles Wells, DCGS-A program manager, said the system is a paradigm shift.

“This is for better analysis and increased communications,” Wells said, noting that DCGS-A will leverage cloud computing to analyze all data, all the time.

“We’re trying to be a Google for intelligence,” said Army Maj. Philip Root, assistant program manager for the DCGS-A cloud. “One advantage of the cloud is that we can have advanced analytical tools, put it in the DCGS-A infrastructure and incorporate it very rapidly,” Root said.

“We’ll be able to access or retrieve data in seconds, interact with data and allow rapid upgrades and updates to respond to user requirements in the theater,” he added.

Earlier this year, DCGS-A was slated for initial operating capability by the end of March, pending security accreditation. Training on the system and off-line usability had already begun as of early March, Root said.

The cloud will first support text data and, in the future, will include imagery and full-motion video, he said.

The system comprises information gleaned from various types of reports — including patrol and incident debriefings, improvised explosive device operations, civil military, and handheld reports from the field — that have been filed in databases such as the Combined Information Data Network Exchange and Tactical Ground Reporting system.

“The data [on DCGS-A] basically covers all operations in the theater,” Root said.

The system will mature with increased usage and the significant user feedback Root said he expects after the initial operating capability launches.

Root also said the Army intends to extend cloud capability to the Afghan Mission Network, and he estimated that AMN's use could start at the end of April. Although more problematic because of coalition requirements and security concerns, AMN has less data and fewer users, so the cloud would use a subset of DCGS-A’s hardware and would be supported by virtually identical software, he said.

DCGS-A cloud capabilities eventually will be extended for interoperable use across the services, although development is still ongoing, particularly with regard to security, Root added.

“Cloud interoperability as a whole is still in its genesis,” Root said. “No one has ever fielded a tactical cloud in Afghanistan, so we have to make sure to have the proper accreditation; we have to ensure there are no security vulnerabilities.”

Initially, the cloud will be available to several hundred users at the regional command headquarters and International Security Assistance Forces headquarters, although it’s limited by latency and bandwidth.

After the regional nodes, or modular boxes of cloud hardware, are proven and edge nodes are developed, DCGS-A will additionally support brigades and battalions. Root said that fielding can be expected this year.

“It’s still a work in progress,” Wells said. “We’re evaluating different off-the-shelf edge nodes," which will maintain a data cache to enable offline analysis when not fully connected or when bandwidth is unavailable.

Future releases of the system will also allow mobile access. For now, the system is accessed on a desktop or laptop PC through a Web interface.

"The Army wants it to be available uses other than just intelligence, [such as] command and control and enterprise services," Wells said.

DCGS-A’s edge is the value it will offer in the field, Root said.

“The primary advantage of the cloud is the ability to be agile and support new requirements. ... It’s a blank slate. You can add technologies rapidly as long as you have good infrastructure available,” he said.