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Air Force IT Strategy Stresses Mobile, Thin Clients

Agency seeks an additional 2,725 iPads and updates a procurement for a virtual desktop infrastructure to support most of the Air Force.

10 Great iPad Apps From Uncle Sam
10 Great iPad Apps From Uncle Sam
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The Air Force's plans to shift away from desktops toward thin and mobile clients are moving forward, as the military service is taking a second stab at a previously canceled iPad procurement and has updated plans to move a large portion of its users to a virtual desktop infrastructure.

Last week, the Air Force issued a request for proposal for 2,725 iPads to be used as a flight management and reference device for flight crew members. This replaces a procurement that was canceled after it came to light that the original procurement called for a brand of PDF reader that had been developed in Russia.

And earlier this month, the Air Force released some new details on a March request for information that has set the stage for the service to ditch desktops in favor of zero- and thin-client computing.

[ Mobile computing is taking flight across government. See FAA Clears iPad For Takeoff Throughout Agency. ]

Taken as a whole, the Air Force's plans align well with broader plans by the Department of Defense to rely less on PCs and turn toward mobility and thin clients. Department of Defense CIO Teri Takai has placed mobility among her top priorities, and has also recently endorsed a move toward thin clients.

The new iPad procurement seeks 64-GB, Wi-Fi only, third-generation iPads to be used as electronic flight bags, which will replace reference books and older flight management logs. Per the procurement, the devices will need two-year service plans, compatibility with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency's Flight Information Publications application called Phaero, and compatibility with night vision filters. Many of the device requirements, such as support for 256-bit encryption, are built into the iPad.

The new procurement for iPads isn't the only one the Air Force has released in recent months. The Air Force Mobility Command awarded a $9.36 million contract for up to 18,000 iPads in early March.

The Air Force's thin client plans, meanwhile, are part of a wider effort to design and move to an entirely new client architecture beginning in 2014, according to the procurement. The Air Force's thin client plan would support "at least 80%" of Air Force users with virtual desktop infrastructure. According to the RFI, which was initially issued in early March, the end goal of the plan would be to allow Air Force users to "access desktop-like capabilities through any device, including commercial mobile devices."

The RFI seeks an architecture that supports up to 1 million users on the military's unclassified network and 220,000 on the classified network, including a total of 775,000 concurrent users. Behind the scenes, the data center would centrally store user profile information, stream individual applications based on users' security groups, and support unified communications.

The procurement indicates that the Air Force will pilot the program before deployment with 9,000 users on the military's unclassified network and 6,200 on the classified network at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, which houses the headquarters of numerous Air Force and military organizations.

The Air Force updated the procurement in the last several weeks with responses to would-be vendors' questions, indicating, among other things, that the Air Force was open to using even commercial cloud technology for the thin client strategy if it could meet the Air Force's security demands.

As federal agencies embrace devices and apps to meet employee demand, the White House seeks one comprehensive mobile strategy. Also in the new Going Mobile issue of InformationWeek Government: Find out how the National Security Agency is developing technologies to make commercial devices suitable for intelligence work. (Free registration required.)

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Andrew Hornback
Andrew Hornback,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/17/2012 | 2:09:54 AM
re: Air Force IT Strategy Stresses Mobile, Thin Clients
This is going to be an interesting item to watch regarding the evolution of the Air Force's infrastructure.

However, I am wondering why they didn't choose to pilot some of this program at Barksdale AFB since that's the HQ for AF Cyber Command. I'd also love to know how much input that Cyber Command has in these sorts of acquisitions - after all, they are responsible for watching not only national infrastructure, but also the military's infrastructure.

Andrew Hornback
InformationWeek Contributor
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