DOD blazes trail for net-centric strategy

Building on the emerging concept of network-centric warfare, the Defense Department will launch 13 pilot projects this summer to test a new strategy for delivering information across the department — both on the battlefield and within the Pentagon.

The Net-Centric Enterprise Services program will combine leading-edge concepts of data and network management to make tactical and intelligence data visible and accessible to warfighters, according to Priscilla Guthrie, DOD's deputy chief information officer.

DOD officials have dubbed the concept "horizontal fusion." It will make information almost immediately available to the people who need it.

Traditionally, DOD has collected, analyzed and disseminated data from central locations using a top-down approach. Officials want to post data quickly and give personnel access to the information they need, a method department officials have termed "power to the edge."

DOD CIO John Stenbit has long expressed a desire to end the days of "pushing" information to military personnel — the current approach to network-centric operations — and instead enable warfighters and other personnel to "pull" information from DOD networks as they need it.

"We are developing a defined approach for the first programs that will kick off" in 2004, Guthrie said. "We will conduct the first pilots for horizontal fusion later this summer to demonstrate our capabilities to date."

With networks and computers crucial to every operation, DOD is constantly collecting vast stores of data. But opening those databases is not helpful if users do not know what's available.

So metadata will be a major component of the Net-Centric Enterprise Services program. Metadata involves "tagging" data with descriptive information and listing it in a central registry. A metadata registry, which acts like a library's card catalog, serves two purposes: It helps people see what data is available, and it lets them know where to find it.

Another component of the program is bandwidth management. DOD has built the Global Information Grid, a massive wired and wireless network to connect warfighters anywhere in the world.

As part of this initiative, officials plan to build quality-of-service capabilities into the grid to enable DOD to reallocate network resources as needed to ensure that warfighters have the bandwidth necessary to access data during a conflict, Guthrie said.

Horizontal fusion reflects a significant shift in DOD's approach to intelligence data. Currently, intelligence analysts usually process and analyze data before delivering it to the field. Officials now realize it would be better to post data quickly and allow analysts in the field to find what they want and digest the information themselves. This philosophical shift necessitates significant changes in the systems that hold the information and form the basis of DOD's network.

Speaking in April on Capitol Hill, Stenbit outlined his reasoning behind the new strategy. "If I was the guy in Afghanistan that had to go over a hill the next morning, you can bet I'd want to know what was on the other side of that hill tonight," he said. "Just give me the photo and let me analyze it."

Rita Knox, an analyst with Gartner Inc., said the scale of DOD's undertaking is probably unprecedented, but industry's use of metadata is already maturing.

"Many corporations are using metadata to manage their applications, but I've not heard of exploitation of data on this level," she said. "What has to happen to ensure that this goes forward is to define data and define terms and ensure that they are consistent across all of the content users."

For example, a computer, which cannot think on its own, must recognize not only synonymous data, but relational data. The computer must understand that "bullets" can mean the same thing as "rounds" or "ammunition," depending on the context in which the word is used.

"DOD is going to have to be careful to establish who sets these rules or there will be quibbling over standards, who does what and who ultimately is responsible for the data," Knox said.

Carol Kelly, senior vice president of government services for META Group Inc., said DOD should start small rather than introducing the system all at once.

"Taking a cue from state and local governments who are doing this type of work for emergency response, DOD should look at developing a list of most-likely scenarios and go from there," she said.

Several DOD groups, academic institutions and commercial vendors will be involved in the pilot projects later this year.

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