AF prototype paves way for enterprise system

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) this month will begin using a new system that enables its many technology directorates to exchange business information with one another and submit that data to headquarters with the click of a button.

The AFRL, which develops technology for information warfare tools, air and space vehicles, sensors and munitions, recently completed a prototype project to streamline information exchange among its nine technology directorates, or research centers, and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, using integration software from webMethods Inc.

The project aims to demonstrate the possibility of tying "separate and distinct [legacy] information systems via technology that allows you to transfer the data automatically," said Ricardo Negron, chief of the lab's technology transfer branch.

The prototype system also helped demonstrate that the data integration could be successful on a larger scale, Negron said. As a result, AFRL recently completed a request for proposals and is currently gearing up to implement a multimillion-dollar Enterprise Business System (EBS), which will link the directorates and the research office.

The prototype uses webMethods' software to make direct connections between the legacy systems of the AFRL's Directed Energy Directorate — the Defense Department's center of expertise for lasers and other directed energy technologies — and the Space Vehicles Directorate, which is the Air Force's research center for space research and development.

The webMethods integration platform will enable the lab to consolidate program information from the directorates and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and centralize data in AFRL's programming, planning and budgeting system.

Construction of the prototype system, valued in the "hundreds of thousands" of dollars, began in February and was completed April 15, Negron said. It is currently being used with test data, which is mostly financial in nature, but he said the system would begin using the directorates' official information next month.

AFRL headquarters, located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, communicates the details of warfighting technology projects to the service's major commands and main headquarters, as well as to DOD.

Currently, each technology directorate maintains and manages project information in customized formats, which involves manual processes for translating, validating and transmitting information. For example, one project took two people about a month to sift through data checking for errors, Negron said. Under the prototype, that task is "basically done in real time," he added.

Susan Funke, research manager for information and data management software at IDC, said security is definitely a "core component" of data integration projects, along with the ability to work in real time. She added that vendors are providing those solutions, but customers may not yet be ready to support them.

"The demand for real-time data integration is one of the key things going right now," but the customers must have the infrastructure to handle it, Funke said.

Using the webMethods software, AFRL workers can securely access validated data, in real time, in various formats from the directorates, said Len Pomata, president of webMethods' federal business unit. He likened the company's integration platform to an "information bus" that helps connect applications and databases.

"That's difficult to do and usually takes custom codes," Pomata said. AFRL developers had to build those custom codes in the past, but now webMethods' technology can connect those applications and databases with very little effort.

Security, specifically 128-bit encryption, is also built into the webMethods platform, he said.

Benoit Lheureux, research director in the application integration and middleware strategies group at Gartner Inc., said AFRL should focus on operational issues — including provisioning, a sound security infrastructure and 24-hour support — as it begins the EBS rollout.

"How easy or hard is it to add another site to the infrastructure? What kinds of adapters do they have?" are the questions that must be answered, Lheureux said.


USC powers up AF computing

In other news, the Air Force Research Laboratory awarded the University of Southern California a nearly $8 million contract to provide military applications and platforms with power-efficient computing and communications.

The program seeks to extend the availability of those systems and enable them to be used in new missions. More power-efficient systems will reduce logistics costs by requiring fewer energy resources and less frequent replenishment cycles.

The program will focus on developing radio nodes for the research and development of the Power Aware Computing and Communications infrastructure, according to Air Force officials. Currently, about $1.4 million of the funds have been obligated, and work is scheduled for completion by March 2005.


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