Marines put big plans online

Maj.
Mark Cantrell of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command says intranet documents can
replace the 8-foot charts that are cumbersome in the field.





The Marine Corps’ Architecture Branch, charged with fitting together all the
Corps’ command, control, communications, computer and intelligence structures, had to
find a way to keep reams of documentation from becoming shelfware.


“We distributed the architecture descriptions in a series of 3-inch-thick binders
accompanied by 8- by 4-foot diagrams,” said Maj. Mark Cantrell, who heads the
Architecture Branch.


That was fine for Marines who designed networks and systems, Cantrell said, but it was
“mostly incomprehensible to the warfighters. What we’re trying to do is put
something very complex into a series of diagrams people can understand. Since it
won’t all fit on one diagram, you have to be able to drill down into it.”


NetViz, a network diagramming tool from netViz Corp. of Rockville, Md., not only has
given Cantrell and his staff a computer assist in creating diagrams, it also serves as the
front end for documents posted on an intranet at the Quantico, Va., headquarters of the
Marine Combat Development Command.


Data embedded in the diagram gives engineers the amount of detail they need. Diagrams
also can link to an underlying relational database.


At first, few people used the intranet’s standalone database query system.
“When we started linking the diagrams to the database, suddenly more people had
access to that data,” Cantrell said.


The branch’s staff of 10 does not specify C4I technology, which is the job of the
Requirements Division, nor does it implement networks in the field.


“We see ourselves as sitting between the requirements side and the implementation
side,” Cantrell said. “We attempt to pull design decisions together into a
whole, and when we find a problem, we act as facilitators.”


Key to the job is documenting the complex networks that will supply voice and data
communications to warfighters. On the field, paper documents are clumsy and expensive.


“At $50 a pop, we could only afford to print about 200 of them,” Cantrell
said. Many sets ended up sitting on shelves.


In 1997, the Architecture Branch began using netViz 2.5 as a drawing tool. It kept
multiple levels of detail through a hierarchy of diagrams that could be disseminated
electronically. Maintaining up-to-date documentation became simpler with integrated
diagrams, because changes in one area automatically reflected at the other end of any
affected links.


“The fact that this tool makes changes immediately apparent is important,”
Cantrell said.


An upgrade to netViz 3.0 let users interface with an Oracle Corp. relational database
of details about each piece of equipment and each network link. Viewer software in the new
release will make it possible to publish the diagrams on CD-ROM.


The CDs can travel on shipboard or with expeditionary forces, which have limited
bandwidth for linking to the intranet.


The Architecture Branch runs netViz on 133- and 166-MHz Pentium desktop systems with
21-inch monitors.


“We’re not talking real high-end stuff,” Cantrell said. “We did go
for 21-inch monitors, because they make life easier.” The diagrams are not sized to
the large monitors, however. They originally were sized at 640- by 480-pixel resolution,
“but it was too hard to fit everything in,” Cantrell said. They bumped it up to
800 by 600 pixels to fit on 17-inch screens.


The desktop systems run Microsoft Windows 95, and the database and Web servers run
Windows NT. “We’re trying to stay mainstream,” Cantrell said.  

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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