Army begins shift to hub computing

Tech Trends: Consolidation effort would support worldwide operations from a dozen data centers

The Army is in the early stages of what may be an unprecedented data center consolidation effort. Its plans call for migrating many of the application services available at more than 400 controlled network entry facilities to about a dozen data hubs to be located in the United States, Europe and Asia.

The project is a significant piece of the Army's strategy to transform the way it delivers computing services to its forces worldwide.

The plan goes beyond streamlining the Army's information technology infrastructure. The catalyst for the project is the desire to deliver uniform capabilities to Army personnel in all theaters of operation, said Col. Ronald Stimeare, director at the Army's Global Network Operations and Security Center at Fort Belvoir, Va. The Army wants to allow troops to plug into the network and access their applications and information wherever they are in the world.

Many details of the plan remain in flux, but the initiative calls for consolidating much of the Army's global network infrastructure into about a dozen Area Processing Centers (APCs) while still delivering the majority of applications and IT functions available at 419 key facilities. The IT operations and requirements at those facilities would still be managed by local directors of information management (DOIMs).

The Army also plans to transfer to the APCs many of the routine network operating and security functions that reside at the other sites. In the process, the Army expects to eventually cut equipment and network costs, redeploy personnel who maintain network infrastructure and improve application performance, said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson, special assistant to the secretary of the Army and nominee to be the Army's chief information officer.

'By putting this in, we will be able to improve the level of services' delivered worldwide, Sorenson said.

Just as important, the plan calls for improving security by limiting the number of people managing the network and alleviating the need for piecemeal security updates on hundreds of systems worldwide. For example, the Army connects to the Defense Department's Non-secure IP Router Network at about 200 sites in the United States. That would be reduced to seven locations once the APC plan is fully implemented, Army officials say.

Best practices

The initial concept for the Army APC effort is based on an international set of best practices for data center operations published by the IT Infrastructure Library in London, Stimeare said. However, the global scale and complexity of the Army's effort, the critical nature of the missions it supports, and the hostile and remote regions in which the network must operate will put the concept to the ultimate test, he said.

In practice, the APCs would let an Army brigade leave the base where it's stationed and the next day be fully operational using the same communications systems and data applications it had at home ' no matter where in the world that home base is ' by plugging its IT equipment into the Army's network.

That is becoming ever more important as the military reorganizes into a more modular expeditionary force that can deploy quickly to wherever trouble erupts.

'Brigade combat teams need to be able to go wherever and whenever we need them to go,' often zigzagging from their home installation to a training facility to an interim base and then to an operational theater, Stimeare said. 'With all that movement and all the services that they require,' he said, 'we have to ensure that our military systems and services give them a [plug-and-play] capability [that's] seamless and transparent.'

The Army began exploring the APC concept about two years ago, when Army officials identified Columbus, Ohio, and Oklahoma City as sites where they could consolidate data processing, said Michael Bomba, director of projects and engineering at the Army's Network Enterprise Technology Command, or Netcom. The Columbus site, which began initial operation at the end of September, is virtually located at a Defense Enterprise Computing Center run by the Defense Information Systems Agency; the Oklahoma City APC started initial operations in March.

Two Army bases have already begun migrating applications to APCs: Rock Island Arsenal in Garrison, Ill., and Fort Riley, Kan. Fort Huachuca, Ariz., is next on the list. The Army is planning as many as six APCs in the continental United States. Outside of the United States, the Army has plans to establish APCs in Germany, Korea and Japan in a program not expected to be completed before 2013.

Building gradually

The initial operating capabilities would deliver perimeter security, Microsoft Exchange 2003 e-mail service, service desk support, virtual private network services and centralized network operations provided from the initial APCs.

In the long term, the Army plans to add a range of network-centric services to the APCs' capabilities, including information assurance, messaging, data storage, communications, computing, collaboration services, application hosting, information discovery, mediation and user assistance.

The initial migration process has had the usual bumps. Inconsistencies in configurations complicated conversion efforts, Bomba said, resulting in delays. That and routine reticence to give up local control are among the early challenges facing Netcom, the Army's lead organization for network and IT infrastructure. Netcom is charged with building, operating, managing and defending the APCs and the network links that tie them to one another. It will provide platform management for all the computing systems the APCs contain, including all servers and operating systems, security and storage-area networks. Netcom also will provide network management for the systems within the APCs, including the wide-area network, local-area networks, virtual LANs, firewalls and intrusion protection. Support for applications hosted by the APCs will be provided by the Army organizations that will use them, Bomba said.

One expected benefit of the APC initiative will be a reduction of the IT staff required at each installation, a result that has won support for the plan from the Army's DOIMs because of staff shortages, Bomba said.

Underlying challenges

As the Army continues to work on the practical challenges of migrating to APCs, Sorenson, a major proponent of the APC model, is also looking to address a number of underlying challenges.

Under a division of responsibilities, the user organizations will provide application and user management for systems within an APC. They also will be required to coordinate the migration of applications to APCs with Netcom in addition to funding the migration of applications to the centers and paying for additional growth of the applications afterwards.< cop="">nsequently, the complexity of achieving the Army's vision and the fact that APCs cross several jurisdictional boundaries within the Army and DOD mean that some modifications to the plan are virtually certain.

'My concern here is that we do not have a complete consensus of what these area processing centers or these fixed regional hubs are and what they are going to do,' Sorenson said. 'We fundamentally need to define the architecture [of] these regional hubs and these area processing centers'and that goes into the joint world' within DOD, encompassing Netcom, the CIO's office, the Army's DOIMs and DISA, the DOD's central IT organization.

The Army's CIO command has asked all of the major stakeholders in the APC effort to provide input on the plan to better define how different parts of the Army expect the APCs to work.

Sorenson said late last month that they were still working on their reports but were close to drawing their conclusions.

DOD also has asked the Army's CIO's office to conduct a study on the return on investment the Army projects from the APC effort. The Army needs to finish more of the transition and have time to operate the APCs before it can give DOD any meaningful feedback on whether consolidating its IT functions in the centers works better or costs less than providing the services locally or regionally, Bomba said.

Given ever-present budget pressures, however, the big question remains whether the Army can move fast enough to start delivering on the promise of APCs.

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