By Claire Heininger
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – The Army is introducing a more efficient process to produce the digital “glue” that ties together the network architecture for the Network Integration Evaluations (NIEs).
The new method is not only faster, but also provides greater flexibility as the Army adds industry systems to the network baseline for evaluation and incorporates capability improvements for each NIE event. By automating key parts of the process used to create the data products that enable communications across the tactical network, the Army is also setting the stage to simplify network start-up procedures for users and give operational units more control over their networks.
“We shaved off several weeks of production time while delivering a better result to support the NIE,” said Randy Young, the Army’s project director for Tactical Network Initialization (PD TNI), assigned to the Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical (PEO C3T). “And it’s only a first step – what we’re doing for NIE will also be a proof of concept informing improvements to how Data Products are delivered and used across the force.”
Data products are a collection of mission data required to initialize the Army’s network, enabling the flow of digital information between different communications systems. PD TNI builds a unique Data Product for each Army unit, taking into account its specific mission, personnel footprint and mix of networked mission command systems.
Building data products for the NIE, however, poses a more complex undertaking than building them for a typical unit. While the Army’s usual 12-week production process was designed to deliver a complete, “set in stone” product – when the interoperability of a deploying unit’s network hinges on it, there is no margin for error – the NIE architecture is, by its nature, always changing. Systems are added to or subtracted from the evaluation list for a particular NIE. Vendors unfamiliar with Army network protocols need time to adapt their systems to Army standards.
“The NIE requires a lot of flexibility because it’s an experiment, and also has systems from outside the Army connecting to the network,” Young said. “The network evolves over time as we get closer to each event.”
But the need for accuracy doesn’t go away – it is amplified, given that the NIE provides operational test data for programs of record, validates the Army’s network baseline for fielding and collects Soldier feedback on promising industry capabilities.
“If the data product is broken, there will be major issues at the actual event,” Young said.
For previous NIEs, the PD TNI team took the Army’s network systems architecture or “horseblanket” in NIE parlance, and manually translated it into the data products production environment by essentially re-creating a graphical depiction of the brigade network. Engineers spent weeks on quality assurance measures to ensure they accurately transferred the horseblanket and captured ensuing changes.
The new process, launched for the upcoming NIE 14.2, eliminates the need for recreating the horseblanket by automatically translating the horseblanket data into the production database. Once the initial legwork is complete, changes are detected automatically and can be pinpointed and implemented more efficiently. After the systems are aligned, the tool then automatically generates the address attributes and assigns them the internet protocol (IP) addresses required to actually communicate over the network.
Together, these changes allow PD TNI to produce accurate data products for an NIE in less than 12 weeks and better accommodate the need for flexibility.
“It allows us to start the build later, and for future NIEs we’re aiming to get even faster,” Young said.
The production techniques pioneered for the NIE will inform the Army’s processes used for fielding data products more broadly. The NIE is also serving as a test bed for new capabilities that give units the ability to adjust their network architectures due to operational changes. In the past, requests to change data products would be sent back to PD TNI, and the unit would wait weeks or months for a new set to be sent back to the field.
With the warfighter initialization tool (WIT) as part of their initialization tool suite, units can make updates to data products much faster at the brigade level, improving situational awareness and better enabling the unit to meet its mission. After successful evaluation at several NIEs, the WIT began fielding to operational units in 2013. At NIE 14.2, the Army will build on that progress by demonstrating the ability for a battalion’s worth of upper tactical internet mission command applications to “self-initialize,” or automatically re-create the information that allows them to connect to the network.
These improvements are considered interim steps to a long-term data products solution that will enable full “dynamic initialization of command and control applications,” Young said.
“Ultimately, we want to give users more power to build, maintain and adapt their tactical networks,” he said. “Through the process and capability enhancements shown through NIE, we are absolutely on the right path.”