Unified Army network walks tightrope of security, user needs, cutbacks

The arena of security is constantly evolving. And it seems it took another turn at LandWarNet 2011, where the topic of cyber defense was being considered alongside technology demands and defense cuts.

The Army is driving to develop a single network that links all users, thereby simplifying operations for users and support personnel. As that network evolves, one of the critical elements for success is the need to protect data from all types of attacks.

Security is a central aspect of military networks, but it’s difficult to manage in an environment as large and diverse as the one required by military forces deployed around the globe. One of the biggest challenges now facing IT staffs is knowing what’s on the network. When new nodes are added, those links can open portals that could be exploited by adversaries.

More from LandWarNet 2011:

Army formulates strategic plan for cyber component

Army cyber arm must prepare mentally for what lies ahead

“One of the problems with today’s networks is that we can’t see everything,” said Maj. Gen. Jennifer Napper, commander of the Army’s Network Enterprise Technology Command (Netcom)/9th Signal Command and leader of the “Build Towards a More Defendable Network" panel at LandWarNet 2011 in Tampa, Fla. “If we can’t see it, we don’t know everything that’s going on. We’re working on seeing this data. It’s first on our list.”

A central element of the new, unified networking concept will be a common operating environment. Industry standards are a mainstay of this approach. However, they must be augmented by policies that ensure that data is protected.

“Standardizing on basic technologies is an absolute must, but it’s not enough,” said Richard Davis, a member of the Senior Executive Service at Netcom. “We’ve got to get to standardized processes.”

In the early stages of the transition, it’s sometimes difficult for network managers to know what’s on their networks. New connections are often established, particularly as more users employ tablet PCs and smart phones that might pop up in new areas. Managers are still working to gain insight into those links.

“We must get situational awareness,” said Daniel Bradford, chief engineer at Netcom. “If we can’t see what’s on the network, we have to ask what seams we’ve left available for our adversaries to exploit.”

Although some steps toward a unified network have already occurred, most of the changes being undertaken will occur during a period of constrained funding. Cutbacks were mentioned in several LandWarNet sessions and speeches, including this panel discussion.

“Going forward, resources will be coming down,” Napper said.

Although the drive toward a universal network will require significant funding, it will also provide substantial cost savings. Today’s disparate schemes require a lot of support, which drives up costs. Napper made it clear that this will change.

“We need to issue orders telling people to run these protocols or we will shut you down,” Napper said. “We also need to talk about moving to enterprise e-mail. It’s not smart to have 70 versions running, each with its own administrator.”

Many e-mail messages will be handled by the emerging Army Baseline Information Technology Services (ABITS), which is being deployed to replace the various technologies now in use.

“ABITS is on an aggressive timeline,” said Col. Frederick Henry, Netcom’s deputy commander. “It won’t look the same year to year.”

However, he noted that ABITS needs some additions to ensure that it fits into today’s economic environment. “We need to do a cost analysis,” he said. “We need to set a seat cost so we can tell people what they need to pay for each seat.”

Although Netcom is taking big strides in its efforts to transform communications into a secure, seamless environment, panelists said the progress will be paced by the need to consider many actions on a case-by-case basis. Many facets of communications are unique, as are some users’ requirements, so what works in one area might not succeed in another.

“There’s no silver bullet for any of this,” Bradford said. “It takes a combination of tools and human processes. The challenge is to find the right combination.”