Managing the chaos of portable networks

Networks-on-the-go are essential against asymmetric adversaries, but they pose intriguing management challenges.

The technology the military uses to manage international skirmishes must evolve as the nature of battles changes. This is becoming painfully obvious in a world that has gone from fighting relatively traditional threats to tackling the chaos of ISIS and increasingly sophisticated cyberattacks.

In battles with this disparate enemy, which seemingly has no centralized headquarters, troops are continually moving, trying to keep pace with the threat. It’s no longer adequate for Defense Department IT personnel to equip the warfighter with traditional communications or networking solutions, which are built for the long haul. Increasingly, there’s a need for modernized, secure and highly portable networks and systems that can be easily transported from one location to the next, and set up – and broken down – as necessary, similar to the Army’s “Technical Control Facility in a Box,” a mobile version of its traditional telecommunications hub.

The mobility of these solutions allows troops to “take the network with them” while making it more difficult for potential intruders to access critical information. A network on the go is simply less prone to the type of cyberattacks that often plague traditional networks. Bad actors are far less likely to be able to pin down and infiltrate a portable network.

However, portable networks pose some very intriguing management challenges. Specifically, how does one control and manage a network as disbursed and mobile as the enemy that is being pursued? It’s a tricky question, particularly for defense organizations whose staff are used to managing traditional networks, both hands-on and on-site. 

It’s a question that can be answered directly through use of software-defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV) solutions. While SDN and NFV are still in their relative infancy, interest in the solutions among DOD agencies has been steadily growing over the past couple of years. That spurred interest is due to many things, including the need for consolidation, better automation and greater security.

When you combine this last point with the fact that SDN and NFV are truly viable options for remote network management, you gain a better understanding of why these solutions are ideal for today’s military. Through SDN, network administrators can receive real-time alerts pertaining to potential threats, allowing them to respond in real time. It’s like an added blanket of security, just in case someone with unsavory intentions is able to lock onto a portable network.

Beyond security, SDN is ideal for highly mobilized networks because it is, in effect, made to handle the type of disparity that goes with that particular territory. Network administrators can easily manage the network, including traffic flow and necessary patches, through a centralized control console. They don’t need to manage individual switches, and can deliver services wherever they’re needed. It doesn’t matter if the need is in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere; SDN enables an administrator to manage a portable network, regardless of where it may be located.

As an adjunct, IT personnel can also use NFV as part of their SDN operations. NFV virtualizes all network functions that were once typically managed through traditional hardware. Routers, firewalls, and more can be hosted on virtual machines. It’s more cost-effective than using proprietary hardware, but more than that (and for the purposes of our discussion here), it’s more agile; when DOD uses NFV, it’s using a solution that will better enable it to more securely and remotely manage even the hardest to pin down network.

Using SDN and NFV, network administrators can remotely and virtually monitor and configure the overall performance of portable networks. They can manage routers, switches, firewalls and controllers – all from a central interface. They can scan for and receive alerts about potential vulnerabilities – and fix them on the fly. They can monitor network performance and overall availability – and route traffic accordingly, reducing the risk of potential hiccups and network downtime.

In fact, SDN and NFV are the ideal solutions for the handling the scenario that Maj. Gen. Sarah Zabel outlined at a September 2015, AFCEA NOVA conference. Zabel said, “We can pull them down, pop up a new network in another place, and leave the adversary behind.”

That statement gives an idea of the speed and agility that defense organizations are going for as they try to keep up with and stay ahead of increasingly dangerous and proliferating threats. SDN and NFV can answer those needs with better control, more flexibility and unparalleled security – especially for networks that are, increasingly and by necessity, in a constant state of flux.

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