DOD casts Coast Guard secure line

Very few information technology projects get delayed due to rain, but the Coast Guard's effort to expand access to the military's secure network for classified information is one that was.

Not long after the service finished installing the equipment that would allow it

to increase the number of

flag officers and executives with access to the Defense Department's Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNET) from 12 to 30, Hurricane Isabel roared across the Washington, D.C., area last September. The storm flooded the basement at headquarters, in a low-lying area of the capital city called Buzzard's Point.

Now the equipment is in more senior hands, and DOD officials are ready to move forward with rolling out the new connections, said Lt. Cdr. K.T. "Kip" Whiteman, chief of the Information Services Division at Coast Guard headquarters.

Whiteman took his position last May, just as the $200,000 project was getting under way. "We had 12 people able to communicate over the SIPRNET from their offices," he said. "After [Sept. 11, 2001], our need to communicate over SIPRNET at the senior level had escalated dramatically, and we had run out of space with our existing system."

Although SIPRNET belongs to DOD, the Coast Guard's growing role in homeland security was the single greatest reason for the expansion, he said. Most Coast Guard bases can communicate with headquarters via SIPRNET — some with help from military facilities — and the service needed more people to be able to use the network.

Although oversight of the Coast Guard was moved from the Transportation Department to the Homeland Security Department, its mission requires coordination with military branches.

"The Coast Guard has long been a military service, so we need to communicate with our military counterparts," Whiteman said. "In time of war, we could be serving under the Department of the Navy. Port security is a growing business right now, and communications with other folks that are gathering intelligence — disseminating intelligence, all of that stuff [is important]. Some of our counterdrug mission is classified. The location of some of our units can be classified," and information transmitted about them needs to be secure.

The rising need for access is a sign of the service's changing role after the Sept. 11 attacks. In times past, most officers who needed to access SIPRNET — and were not among the dozen with permanent connections — could simply use a shared terminal. That's no longer enough, Whiteman said.

"That was an acceptable way to share a resource when demand is fairly low," he said. "Once you start needing this as part of your daily events, going down to a shared location isn't acceptable. An officer would go down to check his inbox, and maybe send a couple of classified messages, browse a couple of classified sites. That would take 15 minutes. Now instead of 15 minutes down there, we're talking an hour or two hours."

The Coast Guard used off-the-shelf products for the project, said Rob Platter, a systems engineer with Anteon Corp. who guided the implementation. Cubix Corp. provided blade servers, which increased data capacity. Avocent Corp. supplied PCI bus extender technology to connect the servers to input and output devices for the users via a fiber cable. Finally, Apcon Inc. contributed an optical switch to allow managers to turn the servers on or off remotely.

"This is really cool," said Tom Burke, national sales manager for government and health care at Avocent, of the Coast Guard project. The project opens greater possibilities in the federal market for the company, he said. Avocent hired him from General Digital Corp. 14 months ago to build a federal business.

He's hoping the SIPRNET engagement will demonstrate the value of Avocent's technology to other agencies. "We're solving a problem that people don't realize they have until they talk to us," he said.

Apcon has also begun making inroads into the federal space, and has partnerships established with integrators, said Mark Holmes, national sales manager.

Avocent and Apcon provide the connection and control between the servers and the users. Because SIPRNET information must remain secure, Avocent's bus allows the servers to do all the processing, while the user has only a monitor, keyboard and mouse — no storage media. Apcon's switch allows administrators to manage the network and control access remotely.

The blade servers take up less room in the facility's limited space than conventional servers and allow for greater expansion, Platter added. "The closet space did not allow us to put any more PCs in there. We have people saying, 'We need this now,' and we couldn't give it to them," he said.

If need grows again in the future, he said, the blades will make it easy to accommodate it. "It's like the Internet; it's all over," he said. "Anybody that needs it as part of their job description has access to it."

***

Secure link

To connect more Coast Guard personnel in headquarters to the Defense Department's Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, systems integrators from Anteon Corp. used off-the-shelf products.

Key components include:

Blade servers from Cubix Corp. that will increase data capacity.

PCI bus extender technology from Avocent Corp. that connects servers to input/output devices via a fiber cable.

An optical switch from Apcon Inc. that lets managers turn blade servers on or off remotely.

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