Missiles launch a net upgrade
- By William Jackson
- Jul 21, 1997
"We figured technology was technology," said Hurley, assistant program
executive officer for business, finance and management information. But good network
management would be essential to keep missiles flying smoothly to their programmed
SRA International Inc. of Fairfax, Va., got the task order in June 1996 and began
taking stock of the LAN at the Program Executive Office for Cruise Missile Projects and
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (PEO-CU) in Arlington, Va.
"There was a severe shortage of documentation," SRA project manager Tom Davis
said. "One of the first things we did was a stringent inventory. The LAN had some
pretty big reliability problems. It was old and needed to be replaced."
A year later, SRA has fixed the e-mail and is ready to replace the token-ring Novell
NetWare 3.11 LAN with a Fast Ethernet. PEO-CU moved from its longtime Arlington, Va.,
quarters to Patuxent Naval Air Test Station in Maryland. As part of the move, it is
migrating the LAN to Microsoft Windows NT and asynchronous transfer mode service on 350
Also on SRA's plate is development of a PEO-CU intranet that not only will link a score
of development and logistics sites around the country, but eventually will feed network
data to the fleet responsible for deploying and firing cruise missiles.
A wide area desktop videoconferencing network is in the works, too.
Strictly speaking, some of these projects fall outside the scope of SRA's original
assignment-to manage the LAN and integrate telecommunications, Hurley said. But that
doesn't bother him. "We take opportunities as they come," Hurley said.
Until the mid-1980s, PEO-CU got its computing power from a shared IBM Corp. mainframe
under a General Services Administration contract.
When GSA shut down its mainframe operations, "we scrambled and started creating PC
systems and from there grew into a LAN," Hurley said.
Meanwhile, the cruise missile was changing from a strategic nuclear weapon into a smart
bullet for tactical missions. This raised PEO-CU's data flow as new targets were
continually being programmed. The network began breaking down under the load of target
programs as well as routine logistical, administrative and maintenance functions.
At PEO-CU, "you don't find too many people who came out of a computer engineering
background," said Hurley, a lawyer. "We weren't qualified to become the system
engineers. I think we were doing a fairly decent job, but we were having trouble
integrating. What this takes is systems engineering, systems engineering, systems
So PEO-CU went to the Federal Systems Integration and Management Center and hired SRA
to take over the job for an estimated $22 million over five years.
The first problem that they tackled was e-mail. The cc:Mail messaging system from Lotus
Development Corp. usually had a backlog of 200 to 600 undelivered messages, Davis said,
and PEO-CU "had been operating under the assumption this was the way it worked."
Messaging chores soon moved over from an aging Digital Equipment Corp. VAX to a Sun
Microsystems Inc. server. "We rarely have problems with the e-mail now," Davis
A bigger challenge was bringing the network up to speed. Hurley had considered going
from 4- to 16-megabit/sec token ring, but Davis was convinced only Fast Ethernet could
handle the large volume of data that is PEO-CU's stock in trade.
"Our vision was ATM all the way to the desktop," Davis said.
When word came last November that PEO-CU would move to Patuxent River in June 1997, the
discussion became moot. The air station already ran a Fast Ethernet LAN.
The switch type also was dictated by the move. Davis had considered switches from Cisco
Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif., but the station already had switches from 3Com Corp. of
Santa Clara, Calif. It made no sense to mix them, Davis said, so he went with 3Com.
PEO-CU started up the new network by plugging in at its Arlington quarters in June via
some intermediary 3Com switches borrowed from the Patuxent site.
"We would not be running optimally here on Ethernet, but there will be an
improvement," Davis said.
Meanwhile, about 70 old 286 and 386 desktop PCs have given way to Pentiums. The rest of
PEO-CU's desktop systems, already 486s or better, will eventually get upgrades.
Now that PEO-CU has moved, it has unplugged the Arlington LAN and plugged in at
3Com SuperStack II Switch 3000s will deliver 100 megabits/sec at the hub, and
SuperStack II Switch 1000s at the distribution points will provide 10 megabits/sec to
desktops over 10Base-T cabling.
The switch to Windows NT is set to begin next month and finish in December. ATM service
will run out to the desktops by next spring.
The Defense Information Systems Agency is installing an ATM switch at Patuxent River's
server farm to connect the LAN with the Tactical Shooters Net, a satellite-based WAN at
the Marine base at Cherry Point, N.C. The connection will integrate some administrative
and tactical functions between shore personnel and shipboard personnel who fire the
Full integration of administrative and tactical functions probably will come in the
fall with the intranet connecting sites around the country, Davis said. The hard part will
be working out an architecture that will give direct access to sensitive material to those
in the fleet who need it, he said.
William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.