Data transfer tech wins over Army users

When soldiers rescued Pvt. Jessica Lynch from her Iraqi captors in early April, high-speed data transfer technology from Digital Fountain Inc. guided them around obstacles and into the hospital where she was being treated.

The rescue marked an early success for the technology, which can boost data transmission by a factor of 120.

The Army's 513th Military Intelligence Brigade, headquartered in Fort Gordon, Ga., coordinated the information exchange, said Maj. William Clinefelter, executive officer there.

Soldiers on the ground needed information about the area, he said, such as the location of power lines that could snarl helicopters, or the identification of buildings and open areas. The intelligence brigade had photographs and other imagery — he could not reveal their source — that the rescue team needed to see.

"Our people here were giving real-time data to that task force going in," Clinefelter said. "It was going back and forth. Over a couple of hours' time, there were questions and our analysts were able to answer them and send pictures back."

The intelligence unit began deploying Digital Fountain's product, called Transporter Fountain, about a year ago, he said. The brigade started operating in Fort Gordon in the mid-1990s, coordinating intelligence teams in South America, the Middle East and elsewhere.

The effort expanded after Sept. 11, 2001. The brigade opened a second headquarters in Camp Doha, Kuwait, and launched operations in Afghanistan and later in Iraq.

Much of the work involves satellite imagery or images that small teams need to relay to headquarters, Clinefelter said.

"Transferring that data can get kind of tricky at times," he said. "As you start pushing across big files and imagery, your reliability of it getting there in one piece and in a short amount of time, it doesn't happen. In the past, we had to save stuff to disks and hand-carry it over. It wasn't very time sensitive, but it was reliable."

Digital Fountain's technology converts data into "metacontent," or information about the information. Rather than sending a file, Transporter Fountain analyzes the data and generates mathematical values to represent it. This metacontent takes much less bandwidth to transmit.

A second unit on the receiving end uses the mathematical values to re-create the original data, said Jay Goldin, the company's co-founder and director of business development. The system can transfer data accurately over any IP-based network, even those with high rates of data loss.

The Army might have pulled off the data transfer needed for the Lynch rescue without Digital Fountain, Clinefelter said, but with much less certainty. "Digital Fountain has allowed us, with more reliability, to take the large files and get them there. For us, that information in a wartime setting, you potentially save a life."

The intelligence brigade's success makes Goldin optimistic that his company will be successful with federal agencies.

"I've been leading the charge to bring the company in the federal space," he said. "We expected the federal path to take years to bear fruit. It's been accelerated by the war."

FTP software and data-compression tools can take care of many file transfer needs, Goldin said. The Transporter Fountain products are specialized appliances for networks and can cost companies more than $100,000 per unit for the rack-mounted, high-end models. "If it's not mission-critical, they shouldn't buy our product," Goldin said. The company also makes smaller units for remote offices and field work.

Cindy Borovick, program director of data center networks at analysis firm IDC, said the products do what the company claims.

"The issue for them is how large of a market opportunity it is," she said. She questioned how many customers in the government or private sector, have the large files that Digital Fountain specializes in and a need to move them over a network.

In the government, however, the need is increasing, said Randall Rigby, a retired Army lieutenant general and an adviser to Digital Fountain.

"The accuracy piece is very important. You save time because you don't have to resend — because you got it right the first time," he said. "In the administrative world, there is always a lot of data going back and forth. Logistics, operations, medical data. NASA would be a natural for some of this."

The technology generates interest, Rigby said, but some people confuse it with data compression, a different technology with a similar intent.

The intelligence brigade has so far deployed the product on only one of its four networks but might expand its use, Clinefelter said. Officials are also evaluating network expansions and other measures to increase data speed.

Digital Fountain is "too early in its infancy to say the total impact," he said. "I just know that in future warfare, the U.S. is going to have to fight against terrorism, and the keys are mobility and the ability to set up operations as fast as you can."

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Transferring data

There are several ways to send large files from one location to another. An innovative approach from Digital Fountain Inc. converts data into "metacontent."

Rather than sending a file, the company's Transporter Fountain analyzes the data and generates mathematical values to represent it. The receiver can then use the mathematical values to re-create the original data. The metacontent takes much less bandwidth to transmit.

Other types of data transmission include:

* FTP — The Internet standard technology for sending a file from one location to another. Speed is limited by network latency, and accuracy is affected by the loss of data packets.

* Compression — Any of a number of technologies that remove some data to reduce the size of a file.

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