DOD arms soldiers, allies with information
Multilateral exercise puts Web-based document management to the test
- By Brian Robinson
- Jul 31, 2006
Good teamwork during complex, multiagency operations is no accident. One success factor is a platform that lets players share quickly changing information securely and efficiently.
For the U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM), Web-based document management software is important in delivering such information-sharing capabilities, which are a fundamental part of the operational relationship the command is trying to build with its foreign allies.
Those relations were tested earlier this year during a three-week exercise called Multinational Experiment 4 (MNE4), the latest in a series that is evaluating ways the United States and other countries can collaborate. JFCOM’s Joint Concept Development and Experimentation Directorate was the executive agent for the exercise.
JFCOM is one of nine combatant commands in the Defense Department, and the only one focused on the transformation of U.S. military capabilities.
Twenty-nine countries participated in MNE4, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, France, Finland, Germany, Sweden and various NATO members. The intent was to explore how to best support a range of military, diplomatic, economic and knowledge assets.
The exercise featured a simulation of a stabilization operation in Afghanistan, involving combat operations and some humanitarian efforts. The countries needed to coordinate data streams from 17 locations using e-mail, voice over IP and instant messaging.
A large portion of that traffic originated in Virginia, said Maj. Thomas Dillingham, who was involved in MNE4 and will be the experiment lead for MNE5, the next iteration of the exercises. Other communications and information originated in Canada, the United Kingdom, France and Germany and through a NATO response force replicated in Istanbul.
“We are trying to identify both the problems and solutions involved in order to get to a methodology that will allow us to work in a coalition environment,” he said. The exercises are intended to be as realistic as possible, Dillingham added.
The document and file management tool was just one of the technology components used in MNE4 and accessible throughout the wide-area network established for the experiment. The document management tool was used to first collect and store the information the MNE4 participants would need. Then it published and delivered the relevant content throughout the distributed environment.
However, the tool did not automate all document management tasks. People serving as knowledge managers ensured that the right information collected by the content management tool got to the right people at the right time, said Maj. Pete Carrabba, MNE4’s technical lead. The need for knowledge managers will likely remain.
“Automation can certainly help to bring content together, but there will always need to be a people component in this,” he said.
The document management software, which Xythos Software supplied, was included in the application tier of the architecture used in MNE4. It also included portal software provided by eXo Platform, a Web-based collaboration application from Exenia and a portalwide search application based on the open-source software Apache Lucene.
The experiment used Xythos’ WebFile Server as the MNE4 document management system to collect and categorize information. Working in conjunction with an office automation suite, WebFile Server also let knowledge managers and other authorized users release documents to people who had access to lower classification domains.
The aim was to give people the information they needed to do their jobs. “The idea is that everybody cannot be involved in everything,” Carrabba said.
Xythos’ software also supports a feature called ticketing, which allows users without accounts to temporarily access specific files in document management systems. Meeting attendees can then access large files without needing someone to e-mail the files or setting up an account in the system.
The MNEs tackle some of the thorniest issues in content management, of which document management is a subset. It encompasses a range of technologies designed to manage information stored in virtually any format.
For example, one of the toughest problems is the ability to manage unstructured data, such as content in e-mail messages, reports, voice mail messages and photographs — essentially anything that is not stored in a structured database, said Jim Till, Xythos’ chief marketing officer.
“In the past, [unstructured data] would simply have resided on someone’s local hard drive, or it would have been archived,” Till said. “Now because of the Internet, it’s being created and stored electronically, and it’s growing much faster than structured data.”
Through the MNEs, JFCOM is also at the forefront of a movement to use content management to share information across organizational boundaries.
Organizations historically have considered data to be specific to certain departments. They traditionally used stand-alone solutions to create and manage the data, which they then stored in isolated systems. The growing need now is to share that information with other departments, but the variety of systems and incompatible platforms make that all but impossible.
In March, the Association for Information and Image Management, the main enterprise content management industry association, chartered the Interoperable Enterprise Content Management Consortium to develop standards that would allow that kind of sharing.
The MNE4 participants made their own mistakes while trying to find the right approach to information sharing.
“Early on in the experiment design, we had a desire for a single repository to hold the data,” Carrabba said. “But the reality is that not all data and systems are compatible. We tried using middleware, but we found out that it also doesn’t address every problem. Now we are going in the direction of bringing all the data together in a virtual sense and through some central repository.”
MNE5 will define the standards for the tools that will enable data sharing. Content management software based on open standards is essential for this goal, he said. Future systems will use a hybrid of industry standards and those that JFCOM and others develop.
“Open standards are essential for us to develop our own standards and applications,” Carrabba said. “Proprietary products force us into long-term contracts and provide no flexibility for us to develop according to our needs.”
The content management tool used in the MNEs will change in time, he said. JFCOM has not yet decided on the specific architecture for future sharing and collaboration among the participating countries. It has deliberately established the structure to be as flexible as possible and allow for the exploration of new ideas, Carrabba said.
“I don’t believe we are close to where we want to be,” he said. “When it comes to content management tools, the one thing I am confident about is that we don’t have all of the answers.”