Pentagon devises innovative IT strategy

In a talk in March, John Chambers, the knowledgeable CEO of Cisco Systems Inc., noted that the U.S. Department of Defense is emerging as a pioneer in systems architectures. The DOD has become an innovator in supporting real-time responsiveness across an enterprise.

Noteworthy is the technology guidance from Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and the just-retired DOD CIO John Stenbit. They proposed strategies to cope with the war on terrorism as the DOD finds itself saddled with a computing and telecommunications infrastructure that consumes over half of the department’s IT resources. The DOD doesn’t have sufficient capabilities to meet rising operational requirements. Just about all of its assets are mortgaged to keep the existing systems running. Only a radical transformation, now defined as the Global Information Grid (GIG), can offer a viable way to achieve real-time interoperability among defense systems.

Suppliers and contractors are replacing obsolete technologies with lower-cost products and services, but that won’t yield sufficient funds to pay for urgently needed innovations. There isn’t’t enough time to gradually swap old technologies for new ones, as has been the practice for half a century. New needs can be satisfied only by speedy changes in the ways systems are designed and operated.

The DOD is stuck with the fixed costs to support well over US$1 trillion worth of accumulation from mainframe — and desktop-centric acquisitions. To escape that bondage and confront rapidly rising threats to our security, the DOD has come up with an architecture that meets the new requirements at materially lower costs. It’s an architecture that makes it possible to migrate rapidly without the resulting chaos seen in the efforts to modernize information systems for the Navy and the Marine Corps.

The objective of the GIG is to move all DOD applications from the current broadcast, point-to-point and inter-application communications to a virtual and secure, enterprise-wide ultrawideband bus. It’s based on the operating doctrine of “posting information and knowledge for real-time availability” by means of “universal data-element-level interoperability.” This is quite a mouthful, but it means that the GIG will (1) support the entry of data to readily accessible files as early as possible, and preferably at the point of origin; (2) provide users with the improved capability to pull whatever data they need, whenever they need it; and (3) ensure that information security measures are applied at every point of entry and exit from the GIG.

The central capability of the GIG will be to deliver Six Sigma-quality secure messaging, collaboration, services management, content assurance, knowledge discovery and enterprise-wide archiving services. The GIG will provide visibility, access and delivery of information services to all of the DOD as well as to others engaged in national security. It will enable authorized and individually authenticated persons to search the networks for information services.

The GIG represents a fundamental shift to a service-oriented view of what an information infrastructure must make feasible. It requires a dedicated and fully assured network environment, populated with information that’s readily available, secure, reliable and scalable on demand — not just as specified in budget estimates. To the extent possible, the GIG will use existing applications via standard middleware gateways for eventual migration of all information assets into the GIG architecture.

The Pentagon accumulated incompatible hardware and non-interoperable software because it relied on obsolete assumptions about technology acquisitions. To save money as it moves to its GIG architecture, the DOD must take a new approach that involves the following steps:

— Substitute communications bandwidth for computing hardware.

— Rely on standardized data in lieu of costly integration of unique data. All data will have associated metadata to help users discover the utility of shared data.

— Replace wired networks with wireless connectivity.

— Eliminate application-specific architectures for enterprise-wide grid systems.

— Eliminate on-site support for fixing hardware and software by using preventive remote diagnostics.

— Apply middleware interfaces to deal with non-standard data definitions.

— Implement perimeter security instead of relying on local security.

The GIG architecture is a breakthrough in thinking about all information infrastructures. It’s worthy of consideration by every CIO, whether in business or in government. The development of the GIG warrants watching because it’s based on an approach that applies to all who depend on information superiority to compete.

Paul A. Strassmann ( once served as the director of Defense Information. The GIG plans — at least on paper — look like dreams that ought to come true.

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