Building the network was the easy part
- By Florence Olsen
- Feb 19, 1996
In late 1993, the Navy pulled a handful of aeronautical
engineers from their aircraft projects to build a backbone network for the Naval Air
Systems Command. They finished in about 18 months, but that was the easy part.
Now some of the same "aeros" must figure out how to pay for the network's
long-term upkeep and how to deal with the round-the-clock work style it encourages. And
they cannot forget the Defense Department's approaching deadline for multilevel secure
"Getting people wired up, getting Macintosh and Windows to talk is not rocket
science. We've climbed the first hill is all," said John Mishler, who managed
construction of the non-classified Naval Aviation Wide Area Network for 36,000 NAVAIR
employees at a cost of $700,000.
Mishler and his team have won several honors for NAVWAN, beating out Walt Disney
Pictures and Prudential Insurance Co. for a 1995 Enterprise Award from Apple Computer Inc.
When they connected to the NAVWAN file-transfer and e-mail backbone, based on Digital
Equipment Corp.'s MailBus 400 product, all 22 NAVAIR sites kept the LAN hardware and
software they already had.
MailBus has native X.400 1988 messaging services and X.500-like directory services,
similar to new standards that DOD will require for multilevel secure messaging. It offered
a combination of native and gateway support for four of the five LAN e-mail systems in use
at NAVAIR sites.
MailBus, which runs on a Digital VAX 4000-series server at NAVAIR headquarters in
Arlington, Va., supports Digital's MailWorks server and TeamLinks client software. Through
translation gateways, it also supports Lotus Development Corp.'s cc:Mail and Microsoft
Corp.'s Mail. Novell Inc.'s GroupWise Message Router Gateway brought GroupWise users up on
Digital is providing engineering services to open a direct MailBus gateway for 8,600
users of CE Software Inc.'s QuickMail, mostly at China Lake, Calif., which has a large
The backbone infrastructure supports AppleTalk, DECnet, GOSIP, IPX/SPX and TCP/IP
protocol traffic between Cisco Systems Inc. routers across long-haul T1, fractional T1 and
56-kilobit/sec leased circuits. It provides full access to the Defense Data Network, the
Internet and DOD's Technet research network.
The network builders were chief engineer John George; program manager Mishler; deputy
program manager Allan Lang; Susan Keene, the deputy IRM director at NAVAIR's Patuxent
River, Md., base, and Cmdr. Craig Luigart. Luigart, now in the Pentagon office of the
assistant Navy secretary, is working on a Navywide network based on the NAVAIR model.
Meanwhile, a pair of network management teams at Patuxent River and China Lake keep
NAVWAN up and running. NAVAIR's Information Management Directorate favors instituting a
chargeback plan to cover maintenance costs, though IM director Ronald Turner has predicted
it will be "another couple of years" before the WAN becomes a cost item in every
Operating costs have come as a surprise to some. "The expectation of senior
management is, `It works, so why do we need all these people to make it run? End of story,
let's move on to something else,"' Mishler said.
Backbone installation costs were paid for out of the headquarters program budget after
Vice Adm. William Bowes arrived for duty at NAVAIR headquarters and found he couldn't
communicate electronically with any of his assistant commanders and program managers. But
NAVWAN now faces a double whammy from DOD downsizing and the Base Realignment and Closure
The command, which contracts for the F/A-18 aircraft and AIM missile systems, began the
decade with about 45,000 employees at 22 sites. By 1999, it will wind up with about 25,000
employees at 11 sites. Already it has begun reorganizing around ad hoc teams.
"Instead of having experts in every technology and replicating that at each site,
you form teams for short- or long-term projects," Mishler explained. The virtual
teams do some traveling but mostly rely on NAVWAN and other communications methods,
"We're not buying as many new aircraft, but the workload hasn't dropped,"
Turner said. "It always seems to take more time to work on a conversion or extension
program than to buy new. The people who are left are going to have to work smarter."
"Sometimes technology comes to the rescue," said Capt. Joe Dyer, program
manager for the F/A-18 Strikefighter program, which relies heavily on NAVWAN. He said it
helps "overcome two sins of our past by giving a voice" to technical experts and
changing old attitudes about "first-class" headquarters staff and
"second-class" field staff.
Dyer said NAVWAN lets him and the F/A-18 program staff apply "24-hour situational
awareness," an aerial combat term, to program management "even on Christmas
One aspect of NAVWAN that no one foresaw is the possibility of working around the clock
and across global time zones. Turner said someone joked that the Office of Management and
Budget should have given NAVAIR an award for figuring out how to get people to work 12, 16
or 20 hours a day without extra pay.
"On the program side, we know they're spending more time working," he said.
"But rather than stay here, they can go home, have supper, play with the kids. Then
they can spend an hour at home to finish up a project."
That describes Turner's own work style and that of a growing number of NAVAIR managers.
"I think society as a whole is starting to shift this way," he said.
NAVAIR's message traffic on the old military Autodin messaging network has dropped off
dramatically. Dyer still relies on Autodin to send classified messages and to formalize
decisions already communicated informally via e-mail. But the new network is vastly
outpacing it, he said.
The big unknown factor for Dyer and others is DOD's Defense Message System, which will
require changes in all DOD networks, including NAVWAN, before 2009. So far DMS is
"only vaporware," Turner said. "We can put a wedge in the budget, but we
really can't plan for that expense until we know what we're buying."
Turner said he expects NAVWAN message deliveries and file transfers to slow down once
people start using DOD's Fortezza PC Cards for encryption, required on DMS. "The
concept behind DMS is great," he said, "but I want to see product. When they
have something to show, then I'll know how to price it out, then I'm very
Meanwhile, NAVWAN's current directory of 36,000 names has maxed out the current
shared-file messaging products from Microsoft, Novell, Lotus and CE Software.