Return to sender: Rethinking the Army's e-mail ambitions

Enterprise e-mail represents a positive step for the Army and DOD, but what will it take to get it done?

When the Army's chief information officer, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson, announced earlier this year that his office would spearhead efforts to create an enterprisewide e-mail service, it was considered to be a path-breaking step for the Defense Department. Recognizing that it would be a major challenge, Sorenson pledged that the Army would lead the charge before handing it all off to DOD.

Although requests for proposals were due in May, no RFPs have materialized. It appears the Army has gone back to the drawing board.

In January, Sorenson outlined initial plans to consolidate the various e-mail accounts of roughly 250,000 users — about one-quarter of the Army’s estimated 950,000 users — in a move the service said would save millions of dollars. The project would be a key part of the Global Network Enterprise Construct effort to streamline military communications, and the Army eventually would turn the project over to the Defense Information Systems Agency to implement across DOD, linking the military services and key stakeholders.

“This is not an Army issue but a joint issue to get at that capability,” Sorenson said.

He said he envisioned an enterprisewide e-mail service that would allow soldiers to access their e-mail from almost anywhere. According to a concept-of-operations document, the system would foster communications around the world, across DOD, and from Washington to the tactical edge.

But now the Army has nixed RFPs for the e-mail project, citing its complexity and the possible disadvantages of issuing a fourth-quarter contract award.

“The discussions on the limitations of the current e-mail architecture and how it hobbles communications have reinforced our desire to simplify the Army enterprise e-mail architecture and to reduce redundancies and cost,” said Mike Krieger, Army deputy CIO, in an e-mail message. “At this time, we intend to look internally to realign our e-mail architecture before proceeding on any course to contract for a managed service.”

Those limitations are daunting. To start, there are the 15 Active Directory forests that house the data and networks that facilitate the Army's e-mail communications across hundreds of Web sites. Those forests aren’t robustly mobile and don’t offer a bird’s-eye view across the enterprise. Furthermore, duplicate e-mail addresses for Army personnel and the 2 million Army Knowledge Online and Defense Knowledge Online user profiles would need to be reconciled.

There’s also the ongoing Base Realignment and Closure effort, which is relocating thousands of Army personnel. It complicates the process by migrating more e-mail addresses and generating more user data.

And then there are the costs and logistics associated with bringing in industry and commercial solutions, which had been the game plan for getting enterprise e-mail off the ground.

“The Army is trying to move to a more standardized, commercial-type solution," said Warren Suss, president of federal information technology consulting firm Suss Consulting. "But there are significant unique requirements that need to be layered into the commercial technology, and that drives up the price and puts it out of sync with commercial solutions, complicating the evolutionary path for enhancements over the life cycle.”

The Army must now find a way to integrate cost efficiency with scalability. Officials must figure out how to rapidly move from a pilot program to a servicewide and eventually departmentwide system while still keeping the mounting maintenance and operational costs within budgetary limitations.

“The desire is to scale an Army solution into a DOD enterprise-level solution, but there needs to be more attention paid to the business case,” Suss said. “The more they can sync with commercial technology, the better.”

That won’t be easy to do, given DOD's heavy-duty requirements for operational security, including authentication, encryption, certification and accreditation for safeguarding sensitive information.

In the end, the best solution will balance the accessibility and ingenuity of the private sector with DOD's security demands and sheer quantity of data. In other words, it needs to meet unique government needs without the complications of a high-maintenance custom solution.

“Still, it’s better to nip it in the bud now than move forward with fundamental flaws” that will cost taxpayers heavily, Suss said.

 

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