Q & A: Army CIO Advances Consolidation Effort

Cloud computing and powerful mobile devices are part of Jeffrey Sorenson's plan to centralize Army IT and make it more consistent for soldiers deploying from bases to the battlefield.

J. Nicholas Hoover, Senior Editor, InformationWeek Government

December 22, 2009

9 Min Read

Army chief information officer Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson is in the midst of a major consolidation effort, trying to make Army IT more centralized and consistent as soldiers deploy from their bases to the battlefield and then come back home again. InformationWeek recently talked with him about this effort, what it means for soldiers and Army IT pros, and its role as a catalyst for cloud computing and more powerful mobile computing in the Army.

InformationWeek: Military IT has long been the home of countless information stovepipes, but it seems like one of the key IT strategies, both for the Army and at a higher level for the Department of Defense in general, is to work on cutting those down. What are your biggest efforts there right now?

Sorenson: A little bit over two years ago we began to formulate a strategy we have now codified as the Global Network Enterprise Construct, which is essentially working to bring about a global network enterprise that it is secure, that functions as a single capable network, and that doesn't cost as much as it does today.

In doing this, there are four fundamental tenets. The first thing was to aggregate, i.e., to find out what is on the network. The second part was to then look at how we consolidate. I can speak to a lot of horror stories. For example, we did a deep dive on Fort Belvoir's networks and found there were six different help desks.

The third piece is to standardize and put out guidance on how we are going to build these networks in a manner that's easier to integrate on the back end as opposed to cobbling everything together. The last part is to modernize.

We've initiated three major efforts, one a global constellation of what we call fixed-regional hub nodes to facilitate communications at the transport layer. Of this constellation, we've established two capabilities to date, one in southwest Asia, and one in Europe, and we hope to get one set up in [the continental United States] and the Pacific this year.

The second part is to begin to consolidate into larger data centers to enhance our ability to secure the data and to begin to posture the Army for cloud computing.

The last piece is improvements to our deployed Theater Network Operations Security Centers. We have one of these in each one of the combatant command areas. I visited four of six, and through that survey it became evident we had too many toolsets looking at elements of the network.

We have gone through a major investment overhaul beginning this last year to standardize those toolsets and redo our Active Directory to get better visibility of what was on the network and to be better able to control it.

InformationWeek: What does this look like in tangible terms for the soldier?

Sorenson: We've put together what we call "the soldier story." The soldier story depicts how a brigade combat team deploys from their fort into a training location and then into the pre-deployment phase -- you can think of it as being like Kuwait -- and then finally into the theater of operations. In the past, any time soldiers made those moves, at every stop, they had to change how they connected to the network with respect to e-mail, to the transport piece, how they were storing their information, their phone numbers, and how they were collaborating. I contrast this with my Blackberry.

Anywhere I go, I can pull up that Blackberry and it connects to the network; I'm not changing my e-mail, my phone number, a SIM card. We're trying to replicate that plug and play capability so that as units move through these phases of a joint operation, the network can be there to facilitate them, as opposed to the soldiers having to think about how they're going to connect and who they can work with. Sorenson: We took a brigade combat team out of Fort Bragg this May and demonstrated deploying a unit from the continental United States into an area of operations in a manner so that they didn't have to bring their servers, they didn't have to change their e-mails, there was a single Active Directory by which they could function at Bragg or within the theater of operations.

They could draw their data services from the APC that was established at Fort Bragg, and when the services were migrated to the forward station in Europe, they could draw from services there and not know where the services were being provided. There was an ease of having the network there to support them, but it was also a major challenge for the war fighter to trust the network. If they can't see it, kick it, or get their hands on it, it's kind of a trust issue.

InformationWeek: Has it changed the way you have organized the CIO office or the Signal Brigade, which manages communications and information systems?

Sorenson: We've had to take a significant look at who we are and what we do, and to understand that we are the enablers. We're beginning to go through that now, looking at how we reorganize to adapt to this new construct such that we can provide this more seamlessly than today.

There are some changes that are going to take place across our formations. Over in Fifth Signal [which provides Army network operations in Europe], they're beginning to build out a pilot-type organization where they provide the service whether it is desired at the operating base or if it is something that's going to go forward, as well as the ability for that same unit to provide necessary battle command applications. Fifth Signal command is essentially prototyping a way to reorganize our tactical forces to support both tactical capabilities and moving those forces forward.

Within the CIO, we have taken a look at how we are structured to make sure we can better enforce the governance model. We have to begin to look at how we enact and enforce this notion of a single network capability for the entire Army and do so in a manner that we're providing more of a service that's also more cost efficient.

InformationWeek: How do you enforce accountability and performance management in an organization of your scale, and what does that mean for a transformation like this?

Sorenson: A lot of it has to do with constant communications about goals, in alignment with the business practice. The Army is going through a transformation and reorganization as units come back and we go through base realignment and consolidation.

Supporting that -- in terms of the new installations, in working to provide enterprise services, in standardizing what those services are -- we need to ask how we deliver those in a manner that supports advances in technology. We now have an engineering review board in which several organizations participate to work through issues from a technical standpoint and then we have the operational oversight board that looks at how we ensure that everything can connect.

InformationWeek: You mentioned setting yourselves up for cloud computing. I know that's a long-term plan, but what do you foresee there?

Sorenson: There is clearly some application as we look at delivery of the battle command of the future. We're looking at posturing to do that, what we need to do from the standpoint of virtualization -- how we make our applications capable of functioning in a cloud, [the] security issues we have to look at, and what we can leverage from the commercial industry that we can take advantage of, in a manner that doesn't compromise security. Sorenson: Clear and fundamental to the whole capability with respect to cloud is predominantly presence and awareness, making sure that when I log into a system, it recognizes who I am, what information I'm allowed to see, and I can get to that information anywhere in the world. We've got a major effort ongoing to consolidate something like 17 to 19 different Active Directory forests into a single forest for e-mail and a single forest for applications.

InformationWeek: You have a lot of acquisition expertise. What's needed in terms of IT procurement reform?

Sorenson: Acquisition goes through steps where you define the requirement, turn that requirement into a specification, put it out for bid, go through development, then go through testing, then finally get to fielding and sustainment. It's not that those parts don't make sense with IT, but the problem is that with Moore's Law, technology advances so rapidly that by the time we lock in budget and then go to execute it, 18 months have transpired, and things that we are interested in pursuing are difficult because every dollar has been accounted for in another program when that program is now out of date.

We're hoping to get a little bit of budget that is not necessarily focused on particular programs but is focused on the development of IT, some amount of money that gives the department leeway to go out and acquire the latest technology because in 18 months things could change.

Right now we're conducting a study on behalf of the chief and the acquisition secretary to look at how to improve requirement definition for IT, how to better align our acquisition organizations within the Army to procure things. We have to spend some time and effort on end-to-end simulation and testing. We're trying to put that together to validate how we can deliver battle command applications at the distant edge because the distant edge is not in many cases megabits, it's in some cases kilobits or bits.

InformationWeek: What's the future of mobile handheld devices in combat?

Sorenson: This effort looking at the battle command capability is about trying to see how we can advance delivery of current technology to the force. When I was over in Afghanistan this year, the [top IT official] there showed me a chart of battle command capabilities and over 60% was non-program of record, meaning things they had bought off the shelf. He's not unique. We've got to adopt our process to bring in these non-program of records.

Apple, with the iPhone, standardized their operating environment, and we intend to do something similar to that at the levels of the network operations centers and the data centers, the vehicles and the aircraft, and small form factors. How do we standardize those environments so we can put out a software development kit and allow third-party vendors or in some cases even soldiers -- I've seen one reserve soldier develop an application on his iPhone that would be very useful in the combat arena -- can begin to integrate systems into our network capability and in a manner that we don't compromise security?

At the end of the day, it's working on how we separate the data and development to really create more of an iPhone experience. Our adversary is going to be there and we need to be there as well.

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About the Author(s)

J. Nicholas Hoover

Senior Editor, InformationWeek Government

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