How military can lighten its load to create mobile data centers

The U.S. military relies on mobile communications to keep its forces connected. But there is a difference between how the military manages its data centers in garrison and how things are run in the field.

Speaking at a session panel at the FOSE conference and exposition on July 20, Lee Collison, a data center solutions architect with Force 3, outlined some of the ways that the military can streamline its mobile data centers to improve data security and cut hardware requirements.

Data centers at Army and Marine Corps headquarters are housed in trailers and they are large, bulky and complex. These systems require a staff of trained technicians to maintain and manage them. But field-based data systems need to be lightweight, easily set up and easy to use by soldiers who are not dedicated technical support personnel, he said.

All of the services have the same basic mobile data needs: Security, data availability, power and space. However, there is no single way to deploy data centers because it varies from mission to mission. “We do need flexibility. Each unit has their mission they’re trying to accomplish and we don’t want to restrict them,” he said.

To meet the military’s needs, Collison recommended modular, plug-and-play applications that have their own security capability. He said that although the Defense Department has approved of a variety of high-level architecture systems such as those using virtualization, few of these capabilities so far have moved beyond garrison facilities into the field. For example, command vehicles may have up to a dozen servers in them. By using virtualization techniques such as a Type 1 hypervisor, the number of servers can be reduced to one or two, greatly increasing the available space and power in the vehicle, he said.

Another capability is the use of a small operating system footprint, which reduces the ability for an adversary to break into the network. Collison said that although DOD uses Microsoft Windows Server 2008 in its base facilities, forward units and mobile forces often don’t use the operating system’s security functions.

One of those features is distributed file system (DFS) replication to provide data redundancy and security. DFS allows data from units in the field to be backed up and replicated in a battalion or brigade headquarters. Data can also be spread across multiple servers, where it can be backed up to support troops, Collison said.

For security in the field, units can use BitLocker, an encryption feature in Windows Server 2008. BitLocker helps protect data and virtual servers by encrypting both disk and flash drives, he said.

The use of virtual desktops operating through thin- or zero-client terminals could also eliminate the bulky workstations used in command posts. Thin client devices still us an operating system in them, while zero-client machines have no resident data, which enhances security and maintenance, he said.

Virtual desktops can be managed and controlled from headquarters, with any additional changes being pushed out to units in the field. Virtualization combined with solid state technologies such as flash drives and flash memory will also help reduce wear and tear, and maintenance requirements in the field.

“Just because we’re out in the field, it does not mean that we shouldn’t do this,” Collison said.


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