Army cooks up new technology in AKO lab

The new test lab helps the service keep pace with emerging technologies while minimizing risks

Army officials estimate that about 100,000 active-duty soldiers own iPhones and another 50,000 have Blackberry handheld devices, an indication of the popularity of these two devices and a sign of the times about how people like to stay in touch and manage many aspects of their personal lives.

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What you can do on AKO

Officials also know that soldiers rely on the Army Knowledge Online and Defense Knowledge Online (AKO/DKO) Web portal — to the tune of 2.3 million registered users — to accomplish many service-related tasks, from payroll to medical forms.

When considering both of those trends, it makes sense that soldiers might like the convenience of using their iPhones and BlackBerries to take care of business on AKO/DKO. But to add such an access option, the Army must conduct a lot of planning and testing to avoid security or performance problems.

Until recently, the Army didn’t have a formal, repeatable way to test new applications and technologies on AKO/DKO hardware with its layers of security, so the vetting process wasn’t nearly as efficient as it could be, said Col. Earl Noble, project manager for AKO/DKO.

This summer, Northrop Grumman, the AKO/DKO prime contractor, opened the AKO/DKO Emerging Technology Lab to fill the need for a test bed. The new lab will help the Army stay up-to-date with emerging technologies that AKO/DKO users want, Noble said.

“It is outside of the firewalls and outside of our protected enclave, so it allows us to play with new capabilities in an environment where we can shake things out,” he said. “We can also push the envelope because I’m outside my enclave, I’m not inside my data center, so I’m not worried about it interfering with the actual operation.”

Northrop Grumman and other contractors use the lab to evaluate, integrate and demonstrate emerging technologies and capabilities before they are implemented on the AKO/DKO portal. The portal provides secure e-mail, file storage and management, instant messaging, directory services, and collaboration tools to active and reserve service members, family members of deployed personnel, retirees, and other Defense Department personnel.

“Because the lab is a scaled replica of the AKO/DKO production environment, we can conduct remarkably realistic testing, rapid prototyping and preliminary integration of new capabilities prior to implementation,” said Jill Kale, vice president of Defense Enterprise Solutions at Northrop Grumman's Information Systems sector.

During the first phase of testing, Army officials need to see how new products work with existing products on AKO. Before the lab's creation, they did not have an easy way to conduct those tests.

Besides technical considerations, Army officials also needed a way to evaluate whether new products and applications are worthwhile to users. Once a product is running in the lab, AKO/DKO test users can evaluate if it is something they want.

Another benefit is that Army officials can use the lab owned and operated by Northrop Grumman to evaluate new products without awarding contracts or funding tests.

“So it is low risk for the government, and it really allows us to get our hands around a product and shake it out before we make that investment and bring stuff into our actual environment,” Noble said.

Before Noble became project manger in 2004, the Army experienced the perils of not having a test bed for AKO/DKO. A new feature caused a data backlog on AKO servers, causing the portal to run slower. The only way to fix the problem was to restart the servers, which led to major outages.

The situation was unacceptable to users who depended on AKO. Noble expects the lab will help the Army avoid stumbles like that.

What they’re testing

Army officials are looking to upgrade the portal’s rudimentary e-mail system to add features such as instant messaging and the ability to see who is online. The lab makes it easy to evaluate several products that deliver those functions.

“A vendor was in my office recently and said, ‘Hey, I want to demonstrate this capability,’ ” Noble said. “I said, ‘OK well let’s go to the lab and have you load it on the client and shake it out.’ ”

Noble also wants to test the new e-mail technology on mobile phones that run Windows Mobile.

Although the e-mail technology might run well in the commercial world, its performance might not translate to the software and hardware environment of AKO/DKO, Noble said. Testing in the lab will confirm the technology’s potential.

In addition to communications technologies, Army officials are using the lab to evaluate identity management products, too. For example, they are reviewing fingerprint readers, iris scanners, and products that integrate Common Access Card readers and mobile phones, Noble said.

Noble said he wants to test technology that manages how memory is allocated to users on the portal. “Maybe instead of giving every user a block of memory, we can use software to give users the memory they need,” he said.

As more people use their smart phones to surf the Web, download files, edit PowerPoint slides and perform other tasks, the Army wants to add functions to AKO/DKO that fulfill users' expectations, Noble said.

“There is nothing I do in my office today on my laptop that I can’t do on a mobile phone, and the capability is getting bigger and bigger,” he said. “That is where the world is going, and we recognize that. So we’re trying to get in at the starting point now. We know that everyone is going to be doing more with cell phones in the future, and we want to stay with that trend and make sure AKO is capable of being used in a portable environment.”

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.


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