New DISA deputy wants to fortify networks

A few weeks into the job, Maj. Gen. Sarah Zabel is calling on the Defense Information Systems Agency to do a better job of making Pentagon networks more resilient and secure.

Major General Sarah Zabel

Maj. Gen. Sarah Zabel, vice director of the Defense Information Systems Agency.

A few weeks into her new job as vice director of the Defense Information Systems Agency, Maj. Gen. Sarah Zabel is calling on DISA to do a better job of making Pentagon networks more resistant to cyberattacks.

"We are currently on a path of continually bolting on protective measures after the fact," Zabel said Sept. 2 at an AFCEA NOVA conference in Vienna, Va. "It's just not…doable now; it's not sustainable in the future. So we need to relook at our current computing and infrastructure systems, and build a network that has the resiliency to adapt, regenerate and morph in real time."

Jack Wilmer, DISA's infrastructure development executive, echoed Zabel's clarion call later in the conference. Defense officials recognize that if they "keep trying to bolt on security capability for every single vulnerability that pops up, we will run out of money before we secure ourselves," he said.

Zabel said one way to strengthen Defense Department networks is through greater use of virtualization. That approach can facilitate IT resiliency because instead of having to "re-create [a] server's configuration as part of a recovery effort," the configuration is stored in the virtual machine, according to a new white paper from research firm Enterprise Strategy Group.

DISA's emphasis on virtualization is underlined by a request for information recently issued by multiple DOD agencies. The RFI, which could lead to a five-year contract, shunned a uniform approached to virtualization for DOD.

"In order to provide support to the entire DOD platform, organizations will need various techniques, methods or approaches of creating a virtual hardware platform, operating system, storage device or network resources," the RFI states.

Zabel, who was previously director of cyberspace strategy and policy in the office of the Air Force CIO, also addressed the security advantages of having nimble, portable networks. "We can't allow a persistent threat to live on our networks," she said. That means virtualizing the networks so "we can pull them down, pop up a new network in another place and leave the adversary behind."

Zabel's wish for more portable networks evoked communications techniques the U.S. military has used as part of its fight against the so-called Islamic State. In Iraq, for example, the Army has deployed a set of routers and switches known as the Technical Control Facility in a Box to revitalize a communications network that evaporated after American troops withdrew in late 2011.

That type of ad hoc, portable network is potentially one tool at DISA's disposal as it carries out its global mandate to support 4.5 million users.

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