March 31, 2008
The title of this post is not part of my secret plan to obscure meaning through the liberal use of acronyms. It really just came out that way.
Here’s what the acronyms mean:
DISA = Defense Information Systems Agency. The once and future DoD phone company, now also responsible for stuff like enterprise application hosting, service oriented architecture (SOA) infrastructure and the command and control systems that will use it. Today DISA’s center of gravity remains firmly in the data center.
NCES = Net Centric Enterprise Services. The SOA infrastructure that I mentioned above plus stuff like enterprise chat and search. Current state has a high ppt to compute ratio.
SaaS = Software as a Service. I know you already knew that one but I felt compelled to include it for completeness.
So, now on to the meat of the post.
If DISA is going to have relevance outside of the data center, and therefore relevance to the warfighter, it needs to have an impact on the experience at the warfighting network edge. Today’s data center focus combined with the realities of network availability at the edge makes that unlikely. The NCES’ core services of messaging, security, search, and things like that are simply going to be useless to the warfighter at the end of an intermittent or low bandwidth network. This is really nothing new as everyone already recognizes the difficulty in supporting shipboard command and control systems with remotely provisioned NCES services. What’s missing today though is a focused strategy to obtain relevancy at the edge.
This article’s mention of SaaS appliances reminded me of a conversation I had with DISA engineers about two years ago. The gist of the conversation was “what if you guys were to think like a company and stretch NCES out to the edge by building (or commissioning) a line of NCES appliances as a combined product and services offering? You could build them into the two or three common form factors so that they could fit into server racks (like in a Tactical Operations Center) or into a vehicle (in an Integrated Computer System form factor). Then design them so that you could add value by remotely providing systems management, domain spanning messaging, and things like that. Finally, paint them white and put big blue ‘DISA Inside’ logos on them so everyone knows they came from you.”
The appliances would allow for modular software deployment (including messaging and message routing, mediation, information assurance functions, search and etc.) either as different appliances or as independent functions within a single appliance depending on the deployment environment. Relying on local caching it would serve as a complete (if narrowly aware) NCES environment on the battlefield when intermittent network realities left it disconnected from the borg, but it would intelligently re-synch when connected.
Done right, I can imagine all kinds of programs spec’ing such an appliance as both a core piece of local infrastructure and also as the bridge back to the enterprise. Army Battle Command System, the USAF Objective Gateway, Future Combat System, Shipboard command and control systems, USAF Air Operations Center, just to name a few, could all use common services packaged this way and whose enterprise awareness seamlessly expanded and collapsed as network availability allowed.
So what do I think “done right’ means? I think it means an adoption-friendly appliance line based on an open stack that all of those consuming programs can inspect and contribute to. I imagine a DISA-managed collaborative ecosystem of related open communities delivering the stack and service components into a related ecosystem of appliance hardware vendors. In a perfect world the collaborative eco-system would be market driven and would span the DoD’s garden walls. By avoiding excessive gating it would serve as an effective two way technology transfer mechanism into and out of the defense establishment; stack components coming in technologies like context-aware message routers flowing out.
I know this probably sounds kind as crazy to the DoD establishment as it does mundane to the open source world outside it. It’s all a matter of perspective I guess. You have to dream it to do it.