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A Network Of Networks

Homeland Security's network project seeks to close communication and interoperability gaps

The Department of Homeland Security last week took a step toward resolving the federal government's information-sharing problems. It signed up Northrop Grumman Corp., in a deal worth up to $350 million, to build a secure network that eventually will extend well beyond the department.

Plans call for Northrop and several subcontractors to build the Homeland Secure Data Network based on multiprotocol label switching. Some Homeland Security sites will be using the network by year's end. Next year, Northrop Grumman will begin linking it with secure networks at other agencies, including the departments of Justice, State, and Energy, and the CIA and FBI. Homeland Security then will decide which state- and local-government networks to connect, with nearly all links projected to be in place by the end of 2006.

"We're building a network of networks to allow selected communities to talk across different networks," Homeland Security chief technology officer Lee Holcomb says. "It's a paradigm shift at the classified level."

Wood Parker -- Photo by David Deal

Homeland Security must be able to communicate with other intelligence agencies, says Northrop Grumman's Parker.

Photo of Wood Parker by David Deal
This is no easy task for a department that's going through post-merger growing pains since it was formed a little more than a year ago, bringing together about 180,000 employees in 22 agencies as diverse as the Secret Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Coast Guard. It has "a real interoperability and communications challenge," says Wood Parker, president of the federal enterprise solutions business at Northrop Grumman IT, a division of Northrop Grumman Corp. "This network is a step in solving that challenge."

The network is expected to help the government fight terrorism and other national-security threats. "The people who will be using [it] will be the people who will be defending the U.S.'s borders and trade," says Laurance Alvarado, managing director of the border-security and trade-management practice at consulting firm BearingPoint Inc., a subcontractor on the project.

Testimony last week before the 9/11 Commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks underscored the need for such a network. Several witnesses said the government's failure to facilitate communication and data-sharing among agencies contributed to its inability to prevent the attacks. At the time of the attacks, the FBI had 42 information systems, none of which were interconnected. This created communication problems within the FBI and "hindered information sharing with the Justice Department, the intelligence community, and state and local law enforcement," Attorney General John Ashcroft said.

Homeland Security will work with other agencies to define standards to allow applications on multiple secure networks to interoperate, Holcomb says. Some offices in the department now use the Defense Department's Secret Internet Protocol Router Network to send and receive information with classified security levels. Siprnet, built nearly a decade ago, isn't based on IP technology and is limited in its future use as a secure governmentwide network.

Multiprotocol label switching, which runs over IP-based networks, tags data as it enters the network and lets administrators set up logical networks that can have different levels of security. "The real benefit is that MPLS lets you create more-flexible, secure connections between parties," says John Pescatore, VP for Internet security at research firm Gartner. It's a lot simpler to use than asynchronous transfer mode, which breaks down data packets after they've already entered the network, he says.

Homeland Security selected MPLS because it lets network managers easily prioritize service levels. "One of the biggest challenges is mixing important, mission-critical traffic with administrative traffic," Holcomb says. "If there's a bandwidth or other problem, MPLS prioritizes mission traffic to make sure it goes out on time while delaying less-important traffic. That's an attractive feature as we build out the infrastructure."

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