DOD ponders DMS marching orders

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The Defense Department in the next 90 days plans to conduct what officials described as a "mass cut-over" from a less-stable version of the Defense Message System to the latest release of the software, which Pentagon officials say marks a significant step forward for the beleaguered program.

All of the military services plan to install Version 2.1 of the $1.6 billion secure e-mail system by June. The switch is part of a renewed effort by the Defense Information Systems Agency to effect a culture change in a department that is wed tightly to the old system of sending messages — the Automatic Digital Network (Autodin).

DMS was scheduled to replace the aging Autodin message system at the end of last year. Developed in the 1960s, Autodin processes about 10 million messages per month through a global network of highly secure but antiquated mainframes. It has since gone through a series of upgrades to keep it running and continues to operate in conjunction with DMS through a series of DOD transitional hubs. DMS is now scheduled to fully replace Autodin by the end of 2003.

But the change may not come easy. Although only a little more than 50 percent of the department uses DMS, many of the problems with the software to date can be traced back to less mature versions of the code and a "lack of operational discipline" on the part of DMS users, according to DMS program officials.

Version 2.1 should solve most of the problems, but there still may come a time when the Pentagon will have to make DMS "the Golden Rule," according to Navy Capt. James Day, DMS program director at DISA. "In general, people will stay with the old system," Day said. "We're going to have to start imposing operational discipline."

By "imposing operational discipline," DMS officials said they hope to educate users on the handful of minor errors that they say are responsible for many of the system's hiccups. For example, some users input incorrect addresses that cannot make their way between DMS and Autodin, Day said. "It could be a perfectly installed server and a perfectly installed directory, but if you put a bad [address] in there, it's not going to go through the system."

Users also fail to check the certificate revocation list before sending e-mail messages, which would alert them to user accounts that have become invalid as a result of being compromised or because of administrative changes, said Jerry Bennis, DMS program manager.

In addition, some administrators download and install service packs for the software directly from the vendors' World Wide Web sites before they can be tested by DISA, which can cause serious configuration problems, he added.

Although Bennis said there were problems with older versions of the software, he said he is confident that the latest and future versions represent a quality product. "Many of the sites are not yet using DMS for their day-to-day operational messaging so they have not yet imposed the full discipline in keeping it up," Bennis said. "You're not going to see the same level of rigor today that you're going to see 90 days from now."

Version 2.1 of DMS, which runs on fully interoperable client versions of Microsoft Corp.'s Outlook and Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes, is a more mature product and is easier to install correctly, Bennis said. "We now have testing of ease of installation months before we take delivery of the product," he said.

But pockets of resistance to DMS remain. The Navy's U.S. Pacific Fleet, for example, recently sent a message to the chief of naval operations complaining about DMS' inability to support deployed Navy forces, as well as a wide range of other shortcomings [Intercepts, FCW, March 13]. But the Pacific Fleet's position on DMS is "not unanimous," Bennis said.

"Part of the problem is that there are constituencies in the Navy that are against [the high-grade security version of] DMS, and they're using people like the Navy Pacific Fleet as a catalyst to get these issues on the table," Bennis said. "They're proposing to walk away unilaterally from requirements that their service and their [commander in chief] supported. If the Navy goes their own way, how does that really move us toward interoperability?"

In an interview with Federal Computer Week, Ron Turner, deputy chief information officer for the Navy, confirmed that there are no plans for the Navy to walk away from DMS. However, Day, a longtime Navy officer, said the Navy's requirements are unique when compared with the Army and the Air Force.

"The Army and the Air Force both have very robust base infrastructures, [but] the [Navy's infrastructure] is pretty poor," Day said. "I think they are understating some of the costs that they would [incur] to maintain the legacy systems."

The cost of maintaining Autodin would likely be more than $20 million per month, he said.

But the ultimate test for DMS will come when the department, through its regional commanders in chief, decides to take DMS to war. When DOD went to war in Kosovo last summer, it used commercial off-the-shelf e-mail instead of DMS.

"It's funny. DMS wasn't good enough to take to war in Kosovo, but pure commercial e-mail apparently was," Bennis said. "When they took commercial messaging to Kosovo, they didn't go through the formal operational test that we are required to go through, and they don't want to waive that requirement for us."

Bennis said a pilot project at the 5th Signal Command in Germany, where 5,000 people are using DMS for medium-grade messaging services, may help convince people DMS works. "A lot of commanders want more secure e-mail because e-mail has become mission-essential," he said. "It is the killer application."

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