Logistics update pays dividends

The Air Force this month begins testing an update to one of its central logistics systems that could help supply its forces in the Middle East.

The software, which should be ready by March, will make it possible for Air Force personnel stationed worldwide to check the supplies pipeline through the Standard Base Supply System (SBSS), an inventory, accounting and order management system that controls the flow of supplies from warehouses to deployment. Defense Department forces are always interested in "asset visibility" — having an accurate account of supplies on hand and on order — but it becomes even more important during military operations.

"The main thing that happened to us as a result of Sept. 11 events...[was] changes required to...increase visibility of the assets available and the status of those assets," said Leland Stanford, chief of the technology insertion/migration branch of the Air Force's Standard Systems Group software factory. "We react to the real-world changes much quicker...with minimal impact on the modernization baseline."

The Air Force was able to jump-start this initiative because of changes made during the first phase of a three-year modernization project begun last year.

Programmers converted the system from mainframe-based Cobol code to Java, configured the system to run on Unix servers and made it accessible via the Internet. The changes also made it possible for the Air Force to add functionality or program "components" incrementally, rather than reworking the entire system every time changes were needed.

The Air Force used the RescueWare software tool from Relativity Technologies to transform the millions of lines of mainframe software code. RescueWare analyzes the legacy code and then rebuilds the application using a modern programming architecture that is component-based, said Rich Cronheim, vice president of worldwide strategic alliances for the Cary, N.C.-based company.

Building for Flexibility

The component-based strategy allowed the Air Force to respond to unique requirements resulting from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks without hindering the modernization process, said Vivek Wadhwa, chief executive officer of Relativity Technologies.

"The Air Force is adapting old legacy technology to a modern architecture that will help them in the future," he said. "The new requirements coming from the field mean the Air Force needs to be more reactive and more adaptable."

The latest software upgrade is a perfect example, Cronheim said. The Air Force wanted to develop the software and install it quickly, without having to make a lot of changes to the underlying system.

"With the rapid deployment of forces to different locations, it's increasingly important to identify where supplies are located," Cronheim said. "They can more readily respond to requirements because the application is in components instead of one, huge monolithic chunk."

The latest upgrade builds on changes made in the first phase of modernization, but considerably increases the system's value.

The initial SBSS change enabled more than 7,000 Air Force personnel stationed around the world to access the system via the Internet, but they were still limited to viewing assets only at their home bases.

The latest enhancement uses Online Analytical Processing software to allow users to log on to the system from anywhere and see everything in the SBSS database, Stanford said. That gives Air Force personnel a much broader view of the supply line.

Final testing on the next release should be completed in March. Meanwhile, the Air Force is giving SBSS similar capabilities by creating data extracts for all base supply accounts and making them accessible through the service's Web portal, Stanford said.

Going Mobile

Putting SBSS on the Internet improves accessibility, but other changes were needed as well. Moving the application from the mainframe to Unix servers, for example, has made the system more portable, which could be useful as communications lines become available in Afghanistan and neighboring countries.

Lines were not in place when U.S. forces moved into Uzbekistan, which is why Relativity Technologies is working with the Air Force to find new ways, including wirelessly, to access the system. "We're helping the Air Force move the application to a modern technology infrastructure that can readily use new technologies like wireless," Cronheim said. The $12 million project is scheduled for completion by December 2002, when it will be ready for fielding and worldwide deployment on other mainframe systems.

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An Evolving Solution

The Air Force is giving the Standard Base Supply System an overhaul using current technology. Here's what they get:

* New system architecture makes it possible to add functions without rewriting programs.

* Java code supports Internet access for Air Force personnel stationed around the world.

* Online analytical processing, available early next year, will allow personnel to search the entire SBSS database, not just their own base supplies.

* The Unix-based system is easier to set up in new locations.

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