GATHER THE DATA: Making consumable information out of raw data begins with harvesting data from external and internal sources, like satellites, aircraft, electronic sensors and unit-owned sensors. (Photo by Pok Rie, Pexels)
Like many foods, information needs some work before it’s ready for consumption.
by Lt. Col. Philip J. Smith
Human beings consume information for the same reason they consume food: to survive and thrive in their environments. Food is converted into muscle and energy, while information is converted into knowledge that is used to make better decisions. Better decision-making is important to survival. As pointed out in an earlier article (see “Cloud Formations” in the winter 2023 issue of Army AL&T), humans and machines must consume information in greater quantities at a greater velocity to achieve information advantage over competitors.
This is important, because when decision and action outpace observation and orientation, risk occurs.
To give Army commanders decision dominance, we must make data processing and availability a critical capability. The solution is not to try and squeeze more data more quickly from the Army’s existing data architecture. The solution lies in rethinking the Army’s entire data system and deciding if it can be improved or replaced, and then beginning to overhaul it.
Many organizations in the commercial sector and the Department of Defense have launched their information system overhauls by using the “as a service” models to acquire new capabilities. This approach lets them keep up with the accelerating speed of technological advancement while reducing resource and budget burdens, equipment obsolescence and other sustainment challenges.
To understand “as a service,” it is helpful to look at the evolution of data production and consumption. For a long time, gathering information was a “hunting and gathering” exercise similar to that of Stone Age tribes searching for food; it was time- and labor-intensive.
Initially, hunting and gathering of food and information both involved traveling out to prime hunting locations: a field, swamp or forest for a caveman, or a library for a student. The Paleolithic hunter relied on tools such as hand axes and spears to bring down a plump mammoth, while the earnest student relied upon tools such as the card catalog or the Dewey Decimal System to find books that would be scoured for information.
Over time, technology and the invention of agriculture made the procurement of food and information much easier. Nowadays, plentiful food is only as far away as the nearest supermarket or can even be delivered to your door. And today, thanks to airborne and terrestrial sensors, modern telecommunication systems, satellite links and mission command systems, Army leaders have immediate access to an abundance—a mammoth amount—of information.
This leads to the second part of this analogy. In those early days of hunting and gathering, cavemen knew that finding and killing that woolly mammoth was just the first step. To convert the animal into food, they still had to skin it, butcher it, transport the meat to a campfire and then cook it.
Like a freshly killed mammoth, raw battlefield information is not immediately ready for consumption. The huge amount of battlefield information is overwhelming. So the first tasks are to concentrate on finding, extracting, transporting and processing the valuable and useful information for the data consumers.
Processing data, like processing foods, requires an infrastructure. And like the food processing infrastructure, the data processing infrastructure is driven by the needs of the ultimate consumer—the Soldier, the staff and the commander.
SERVICE LEVELS, AN INTRODUCTION
Think of all the tools, transportation, processes and options that go into food production.
Specialized farming equipment such as combines and milking machines collect or harvest the raw food, which must be transported and undergo further cleaning, sorting and filtering. Depending on the proposed use of the food, we may see further transportation and storage where the food goes through final preparation to make it consumable in a variety of formats: a six-course gourmet meal served in a fine restaurant, a home-cooked meal eaten at home, a microwave burrito hastily wolfed down in a dorm or barracks room, or a Meal Ready to Eat issued to troops on the move.
Data consumption also varies. Sometimes a deep dive is needed to assess potential courses of action of an enemy. At others, a Soldier spots an oncoming group of vehicles and needs to make a snap decision on whether they are friend or foe, whether the targets should be engaged, and if so, what assets should be called in to fire upon the enemy.
To make consumable information out of raw data involves a variety of processes, starting with harvesting data in many ways. There are external sources, including satellites, aircraft and electronic sensors. Internal sources, such as unit-owned sensors, can be operated by subordinate or adjacent units, sister services, allies or intelligence agencies. Other data is collected internally, both from sensors on vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles, but also from much less glamorous sources, such as manual counts of ammunition on hand, or Department of the Army 5998e maintenance forms.
The collected data moves via land lines, fiber optics, wireless transmission and satellites, and is stored in both electronic and paper form: spreadsheets, hard drives, email inboxes and shared network resources.
Finally, the data is prepared for consumption. Typically, the data is transformed by staff into unique and ephemeral standardized, text-heavy, information-packed slide decks that commanders and staff have to dig through to find useful nuggets. But technology is now making it easier to quickly convert that raw data into usable and consumable information, using technologies such as automation and artificial intelligence. So, we must adjust our understanding of what new capabilities can be used to enable and improve the observe-orient-decide-act loop for commanders at strategic and tactical levels.
INFRASTRUCTURE AS A SERVICE PROVIDES OPTIONS
To continue using the analogy of food and data preparation, imagine you are a manager responsible for feeding a fixed number of people on a daily basis, but your cafeteria just burned down. While the cafeteria was reduced to ashes, everything else was saved: the appliances, pots, pans, furniture and the cooks. You can’t afford to buy a new cafeteria, so what do you do? You rent one, instead, and restart operations using your staff, equipment and furniture.
This is an example of infrastructure as a service (IAAS). Under the IAAS model, you rent infrastructure (servers, data storage, facilities, heating, vents, air conditioning, etc.) and services (basic security and server resources utilized on a consumption basis). You must bring all your own data, data appliances and software tools, as well as data ingredients and trained and qualified people to wield the data tools.
In various tactical scenarios, a unit’s servers may be inaccessible for a number of reasons. The servers may be undergoing maintenance or reset, in transit to theater, or unavailable while a tactical operations center is moving. There may also have been a catastrophic event and the hardware rendered unrecoverable. Due to personnel transfers, a unit might lack personnel with the required military occupational specialty expertise to administer tactical IT services. It is also possible that the mission might dictate such a geographic spread of personnel that there is not enough issued hardware to meet the need. Nonetheless, despite these sorts of challenges, units may still need to train, exercise or even execute the mission.
Because the U.S. Army has already invested in buildings, purchased servers and the necessary resources to run them, and has acquired software and appliances to run on owned hardware, this inefficient and less flexible model is the only one we can use as tenants in cloud service providers immediately without retooling or altogether rebuilding our software. However, to process raw data more efficiently for information consumption in other logical and physical locations, we need to make additional changes.
PLATFORM AS A SERVICE PROVIDES THE TABLE
Extending the scenario, imagine that not only the building but also your appliances were lost in the fire. In addition, the number of people you are being asked to feed has been fluctuating wildly and unpredictably. Likewise, for your reopening, you have been tasked to make a special one-off meal that will require new and exotic food preparation equipment. How do you re-equip your kitchen so you can deal with all these variables?
Platform as a service (PAAS) is an option. It is the equivalent of renting a kitchen and staff by the hour, so you only pay when you need their services. PAAS provides a tenant from a cloud service provider with a collection of agreed-upon tools. They can include delivery and storage of U.S. Army or DOD-owned raw data, and a collection of modular software that, when properly orchestrated in a sequence—just like a recipe—can produce something consumable in a task-tailorable way. Platforms provide flexibility. They can be increased when needed because of high demand or reduced to economize. Perhaps in a recipe a blender is needed, and many orders are now waiting at this step in the process. In a platform, multiple blenders, up to as many as can be hosted on the platform, can be called up for use to efficiently complete the overall task. When they are no longer needed, they are put away and the countertop real estate can be freed up for other resources.
Collections of these functions that consistently operate in the same way can be packaged in containers. Containers allow smaller chunks of software to be “built once, run anywhere.” That is, if your hardware and foundational “middleware” can support them, containers can be hosted on extendible hardware platforms at various locations as well as being connected with a central source.
To keep with the analogy, perhaps your kitchen is keeping up with an additional customer load, but you need more dining space. Dining room containers complete with tables, chairs, cutlery, etc., can be brought to various locations, maybe even separated from the kitchen if meals can be transported fast enough, to meet demand. You may need additional dishwashing capabilities as well.
SOFTWARE AS A SERVICE CONSUMABLES
Returning to the post-fire scenario, there is an additional option—software as a service (SAAS), which is the data equivalent of getting out of food preparation altogether and hiring someone else to do the job, potentially all the way to doorstep delivery of food. These services vary from the more traditional delivery of pizza, to other fast food, or meals from other types of restaurants. There are even custom services in which a driver brings pre-measured ingredients to your doorstep and you do the cooking.
With SAAS, a cloud services provider supplies data tools and information capabilities, and handles a variety of tasks such as dissemination and security. Additional services can usually be added at additional cost. These customizations or enhancements are generally provided from a palate of offerings from the cloud service provider, rapidly adapted en masse, but not software development specifically for an organization. To account for this, no- and low-code offerings are typically available with a graduating degree of customization for a tenant organization.
The Army’s most widely known venture into SAAS was the adoption of A365—Microsoft’s suite of SAAS tools, which include Azure Active Directory (identity and credential access management), Teams, Office 365, SharePoint Online, etc. These programs have enabled the Army to collaborate more effectively, but unit level customizations have been slow to develop or be enabled, given that the service is procured at the U.S. Army level instead of the unit level. However, in the suite of tools made available are things like Power BI, Power Automate, and Power Apps that allow anyone in the Army to visualize their data, automate their processes and create apps for their organizations.
The drawback is that these SAAS solutions typically exist within cloud hyperscale resources or “off-premises,” meaning a connection is required to develop, utilize and otherwise consume those services. Hybrid architectures are available in some cases, but they are still a mix of IAAS, PAAS and SAAS. For the tactical Army, pure SAAS may not meet requirements for the ability to operate in denied, disrupted, intermittent and limited bandwidth environments. However, for users who spend the bulk of their time in training and exercises, SAAS offers more exposure at reduced costs when these hybrid architectures are used with the right software.
WRAPPING IT UP TO GO
A range of options is on the menu from cloud service providers where ease of use is balanced against cost and responsibilities. Infrastructure, platform and software services aim to digitally process and help users turn their data into digestible information in a multitude of methods that an organization can choose from. However, with so many options, organizations can spend a lot of time, effort and money trying to do new things the old way.
While it is possible to take current Army information technologies and implement them in cloud service provider resources built on the same concepts of operation using low level IAAS options, it may not be fiscally responsible. Somewhere along the way, inconveniences will become emergencies that are unnecessarily difficult to work through if we continue to try putting square pegs in round holes. If we intend to maintain Army software autonomy, we will have to adjust software delivery requirements to be cloud-native or container-based to be more readily consumable by the force.
For more information, contact Lt. Col. Philip J. Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
COL. PHILIP J. SMITH is the Network Cross-Functional Team’s information system development officer. He holds an M.S. in telecommunications and network engineering from Syracuse University and a B.S. in communications with an emphasis on computer science from Truman State University. He has served as the division automation management officer for 10th Mountain Division, as well as chief network engineer at the Defense Intelligence Agency and Joint Staff Directorate for Intelligence. He co-authored an article, “Cloud Formations,” that appeared in the winter 2023 issue of Army AL&T magazine.