Troops at Home With COTS Hardware, Software

Visit practically any U.S. unit in Bosnia, Croatia or Hungary—whether it's doing business out of a tent, a trailer or a shot-up office building—and in one quick glance you'll see anything from a handful to a roomful of commercial off-the-shelf computers and workstations.

From the NATO Combined Joint Communications Control Center (CJCCC) in Zagreb, Croatia, to the headquarters of the V Corps in Tuzla, Bosnia, to the headquarters of the NATO Implementation Force (IFOR) compound in Sarajevo, Bosnia, COTS computer hardware and software products abound.

In Zagreb, CJCCC and the 5th Signal Command network engineers use Sun Microsystems Inc. SPARCstations and Hewlett-Packard Co. OpenView software to monitor the health of the Tactical Packet Networks in the theater.

At the 22nd Signal Command in Tuzla, engineers are using Mosaic World Wide Web freeware to automatically monitor the health and status of their Mobile Subscriber Equipment digital switches from inside an old Yugoslav Air Force building.

Air Force C-17 airlifters landing at Tuzla have Silicon Graphics Inc. workstations bolted into their cockpits, running Multi-Source Tactical System software that helps the pilots navigate as well as receive and plot threat information.

The Air Force also installed Digital Equipment Corp. Alpha workstations on the ground in Tuzla and Tazar, Hungary, to manage the airlift through the Command and Control Information Processing System developed for the Air Mobility Command by Computer Sciences Corp.

Lt. Col. Mary Fuller, product manager for the Army Small Computer Program, attributes the widespread use of COTS systems in Operation Joint Endeavor to one simple fact: "What you get used to in your office is what you take to the field."

Lt. Cmdr. Allen Rice, who runs the classified NATO local-area network at IFOR headquarters in Sarajevo from a room not much larger than a walk-in closet, said the multinational organization recently switched all its record message traffic from low data rate teletype circuits to a commercial network architecture based on Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT 3.50 on the server side and Windows for Work-groups for users.

Rice, who came to Sarajevo from the computer support group at Allied Force South Headquarters, Naples, Italy, installed a LAN in Sarajevo that serves 71 top-level users. Some of them work out of cargo containers, others out of the fading elegance of the Sarajevo Residency, once the home of the former ruler of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz (better known as Tito)—all connected by high-speed fiber-optic cables.

Because many of the LAN's users were computer novices, Rice said he went with a point-and-click system to provide ease of use. As a result, Rice called the LAN and the electronic-mail system it supports "the most reliable comm system we have" in Sarajevo.

Hardware for the Sarajevo LAN is strictly commercial, with Zenith Data Systems 486s predominating, although NATO also bought Tulip (a Dutch brand) PCs. Rice said the secret to deploying COTS gear to the field is simple: "Save the original boxes and packing material."

Lt. Col. Gene Tyler, assistant deputy chief of staff for U.S. Army Forward, said his command has installed within the theater a commercial e-mail system "that outdoes what we have in-garrison. From an automation point of view, this is the biggest thing we have ever done." Users, Tyler added, particularly like the capabilities that commercial e-mail gives them to send files with attachments.

That definitely has a downside, according to Rice. Users have become so enamored of this feature, he said, "that we've had some mail stoppages due to large PowerPoint files."

Lt. Col. John Ylinen, automation chief for V Corps, has fielded a total COTS office automation and e-mail package to support users in Bosnia, Croatia and Hungary as well as users in the rear in Germany.

This package includes Microsoft Exchange, which Ylinen started shipping to users in the field in its beta version. He purchased ZDS dual-Pentium servers from Telos Corp.'s Small Multiuser Computer II contract for his Exchange network and started installing them in Hungary earlier this month.

Ylinen tapped International Data Products Corp.'s Army PC-1 contract for Pentium laptops, saying he had reached an agreement with IDP that easily resolved repair problems for users in the field. "If one of the IDP laptops breaks, they express mail me a new one, and I ship the old one back to them."

Ylinen said the fact that he has fielded COTS equipment to more than 1,000-plus V Corps users, many of them operating in austere conditions, proves to him that "COTS works, even in mission-critical situations."

Much of the IT business in Bosnia is aimed at setting up home offices away from home. With the tactical comm infrastructure in place, troops have turned their attention to the acquisition of off-the-shelf hardware, software and LANs.

The Bosnia mission is unusual because the Army is trying to build LANs in the field, not just offer dial-up connections. "We find as we get more and more devices clustered, it makes sense to network together rather than use modems," Ylinen said. "Anywhere you have a concentration of devices, you need a hub."

Hubs, such as Cabletron Systems Inc.'s MMAC hub, act as "traffic cops" and tie the office automation PCs in the field together. There are more than a dozen MMACs in Bosnia. The hubs are bought off of various Army indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts, including the Sustaining Base Information Services contract.

That scenario has helped spike interest in Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 95 operating system, said Sean Kantorow, Microsoft's government account representative for the U.S. Army-Europe.

Windows 95, with its support for Slip Point-to-Point Protocol connections, allows Army users to access Windows NT through terminal servers. That means Windows 95 users deployed in Europe can pick up their electronic mail off their Windows NT servers.

The Pentagon decided to use the extensive network of PCs seeded throughout Bosnia to help troops better handle a truly mission-critical situation: minefields, according to Timothy Connolly, formerly principal deputy assistant secretary of Defense for special operations.

Connolly said that about a year ago his office developed a CD-ROM called MineFacts for the Humanitarian De-Mining Technologies Project that provided a broad base of data on 650 land mines. He started a crash project to transfer information on the 36 mines most prevalent in Bosnia to three floppy disks that could be run on any Windows PC, including a 386.

DOD has been successful getting COTS technology into Joint Endeavor because of the cooperation of industry, the Army's Fuller said. "Our vendors are all working very closely with us to make sure we get the equipment to the customers in the field," she said.


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