JIE's murky progress raising questions

Complex systems, unclear timelines compound challenges for Pentagon's shared operational network.

Software Development Black Box

The Defense Department's ambitious shared operational network, the Joint Information Environment, is a favorite topic among Pentagon brass making the rounds on the public-appearance circuit. A number of officials have, over the past year or two, emphasized the importance of sharing critical information in real time while increasing efficiency and security.

JIE is supposed to do all of that and then some: Other aspects include data center consolidation, improved bandwidth availability, enterprise services and updated IT infrastructure. Cutting-edge technologies, officials say, are essentially the backbone of JIE. So why is it so unclear what exactly DOD is buying, how it is acquiring IT and what is going into building JIE?

The description of JIE itself is not as straightforward as many government program managers and industry stakeholders are used to. There is little in the way of a well-defined goal or a path for getting there. Timelines are equally ambiguous.

JIE "is not a program of record or a joint program office," Adm. David Simpson, Defense Information Systems Agency vice director, said earlier this year. "It is an organization of alignment across the department around shared IT infrastructure, enterprise services, and a single security architecture that is designed from the very beginning around the information sharing that needs to occur across the department."

At its core, transitioning DOD's numerous components, departments and agencies from separate assets and functions to military-wide capabilities will be one of the Pentagon's biggest challenges. Officials at the highest levels all are involved in making JIE happen, but many admit it has been and likely will continue to be a struggle.

"It's hard to herd all of us down that path, so we are constantly trying to make sure we're on common definitions and a common path. We're really working very hard to add clarity. There are sometimes issues from the different points of view, but we're working on them," Gary Blohm, director of the Army Architecture Integration Center in the CIO/G-6 office, said Aug. 8 in Washington.

Blohm noted there has been some progress – JIE's Increment 1 reached initial operating capability on July 31 with the opening of the first Enterprise Operations Center in Stuttgart, Germany. It's the first step of many to come, but no one seems to be sure when.

"There are other areas that aren't as well-defined as we'd like them to be," Blohm said. "There are timelines for some capability upgrades, and now as we get through those upgrades we need to build the next schedule."

Blohm did not specify what those upgrades are, but it's a safe bet at least one of them involves a comprehensive upgrade to the military's U.S.-based network infrastructure.

With troops returning from Afghanistan and DOD's move to everything-over-IP – which requires a major bandwidth boost to support – that modernization indeed is under way. DISA and the Army are calling the upgrade multi-protocol label switching (MPLS), a high-tech, robust mechanism to facilitate fast communications, data sharing and cloud utilization.

According to sources familiar with the effort speaking on background, MPLS effectively will underpin JIE's contiguous U.S. (CONUS) network. It will be a key platform for providing the military with IT capabilities for years; one source likened the transition to moving from copper to fiber cables.

Mike Krieger, Army deputy CIO, said MPLS will align the Army with JIE, and the goal is to roll it out by 2014. He said roughly $22 million in fiscal 2012 funding was spent on the project, along with $175 million to purchase the security stacks to be used with MPLS. Krieger also said savings from the move will be sustained in out years, and that MPLS' cloud transport capabilities will free up precious bandwidth and provide better analytics.

Sources say MPLS's architecture is a direct extrapolation of the architecture used in the Pentagon renovation and expansion of the Mark Center that began in 2008 and wrapped in 2012. DOD officials did not confirm if that is true, but if it is, it would mean that an IT network architecture originally deployed as far back as four years ago, encompassing a roughly 10-mile radius, would be used across CONUS for the foreseeable future – possibly decades.

But the origin of MPLS's architecture is far from the only concern. A number of industry stakeholders, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed uneasiness over a lack of transparency in how DOD leadership is carrying out the structuring of JIE.

In an FCW analysis of acquisition documents, including requests for information and requests for proposals that specify "brand name or equal" for materials and services associated with MPLS, there appeared to be few, if any, functional requirements given, no information on the requirements-generation process and no evidence of analyses of alternatives.

Furthermore, in descriptions of salient characteristics in an RFP for the purchase of security stacks, technical information provided for potential "or equal" bids were essentially identical to specifications for similar products made by Sourcefire Inc. In other words, under the RFP's description, technical specifications for Sourcefire's particular makes and models of products become U.S. government requirements. The Sourcefire example is just one instance of a pattern in the acquisition documents.

At press time, DOD officials did not respond to requests for comments on the acquisition documents.

Such explicit requirements for such a foundational undertaking could be problematic, painting DOD agencies into a corner instead of putting them ahead of the fast-moving technological curve. For a fundamental part of military operations, and one that hinges on both technology and interoperability, the specificity puts constraints on what can be added on as technology advances and limits who can participate, sources said.

It is essentially the opposite of the open-standards movement currently afoot in the government IT community.

"With something as large and complicated as JIE, you have a bewildering number of components, all of which have to interact and work with each other. Interoperability becomes really important, not just for procurement but as practical matter," said Gunnar Hellekson, Red Hat's chief technology strategist. "It's not a program office, so they're going to have to interact with dozens of program offices of differing levels of maturity...to get them working together in a meaningful way, they almost have to use open standards to make that work."

Given DOD's long view of the future of JIE, it is critical to keep the barrier of entry and exit low in order to have as much flexibility as possible, particularly as new technologies emerge that can improve communications and security.

"If you're committed to legitimate open standards, it means that you have the maximum number of possible bidders. You have alternatives if companies don't give you what you want, and you can switch companies for relatively little cost. Otherwise, it becomes expensive and difficult to switch horses," Hellekson said. "It's dangerous to think that one vendor or one predefined set of solutions will deliver all the functionality DOD needs now and in the future."

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