DOD cautions services to wait on ATM buys

Concerned about incompatible equipment, the Defense Department this month asked the armed services and DOD agencies temporarily to stop buying a high-speed network technology critical to future warfighting strategy pending release of departmentwide standards. This action could slow work on $5 billion worth of network infrastructure projects that link the warfighter to the Pentagon.

The request for a two-week suspension in the acquisition of Asynchronous Transfer Mode surfaced in an April 6 memorandum from Art Money, the designee for assistant secretary of Defense for information operations. DOD plans to lift the suspension as early as this week and issue guidance on buying ATM, but some sources question how quickly the services could resume their network projects.

In the memo, directed to all DOD agencies, the chief command and control offices of the three services as well as the director of the Intelligence Systems Secretariat, Money asked the services and DOD agencies to "suspend all actions to acquire ATM systems and services, except as authorized by the [DOD] director [of] communications."

ATM, which is still a maturing technology, allows users to mix voice, video and data traffic on the same set of transmission pipes. The Pentagon views ATM as an essential technology to support commanders and troops, especially deployed forces. With ATM, commanders of deployed forces could simultaneously talk on the phone and send a digital image of a target and a brief of the attack plan.

But Money raised concerns that the services are pursuing different solutions and will not select the same equipment, with the result that one service or DOD agency may not be able to communicate with another during military operations.

In the memo, Money said the request was prompted by the "pending'' development of "specifications, standards [and] certification requirements" for ATM and by the formulation of plans by the Defense Information Systems Agency for the Defense Information Systems Network. ATM standards are "necessary to ensure DOD-wide interoperability of ATM systems and services,'' Money said.

The Pentagon plans to "promulgate guidance'' this week on "how and when'' DOD organ-izations and the services need to incorporate the standards into their networks, a DOD spokeswoman said.

Services See Roadblock

The services have reacted strongly to the memo, viewing it as a roadblock to the development and installation of advanced, high-speed ATM on bases worldwide. No officials would comment on the memo.

The services also view the memo as an intrusion by DISA, backed by top DOD management, into the development of computer networks, a territory they have always considered their own. (A draft blueprint for the new office Money is slated to head gives DISA the franchise to set network standards down to the base level.)

An executive of a company heavily engaged in base network infrastructure programs echoed these concerns, commenting that "DISA does not act quickly on stuff like this. Plus, this could turn into a food fight between the companies in the ATM business, which could delay the process even further.''

Air Force Brig. Gen. John Meincke, the agency's vice director, said, "We may be a year or more away from the evolution of all those standards.''

But, Meincke said, standards development is vital because if the services and Defense agencies continued to develop networks without such guidelines, traffic might not easily flow from one DOD network to another.

David Borland, the Army vice director for information systems for command, control, communications and computers, said he had not yet reviewed the memo but agreed in principle with its objectives. "It's probably a wise thing to do," he said. "One of the things we've always tried to do is follow the market. If the standards have not matured, it's probably wise to step back."

Borland said he could not anticipate an immediate effect of Money's request on the Army's Common User Transport Information Network (CUTIN), designed around ATM technology and slated for installation at more than 100 domestic bases. Its rollout has been delayed because of a reprogramming of its funds to correct Year 2000 problems in Army digital network switches.

One source said Money's memo could cause problems not only for the Army's CUTIN program— already delayed by the Year 2000 issue— but also for the Air Force's Combat Information Transfer System program and the Navy's Information Technology for the 21st Century project, both designed around ATM local- and wide-area networks and both valued at more than $1 billion.

Since the memo was issued, the services and industry have scrambled to determine its impact— especially on installations and orders already budgeted in 1998— and have yet to receive completely satisfactory answers to their concerns or questions.

Jim Massa, director of federal operations for Cisco Systems, said, "I have a number of questions. How long will it take them to make a final decision? Why are they making this request now? Has Money recognized that actions need to be taken quickly?''

Richard Bibb, vice president of federal operations for Fore Systems Federal, said his company supports the standardization effort because he believes "there has been much confusion and misinformation propagated regarding specific vendors' capabilities in the ATM arena, both by DOD personnel and the vendor community. If the result of this effort is to minimize confusion by establishing a baseline of functionality...[then] any reasonable delay associated with compliance with this memo will have been worthwhile.''


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