Military seeks to marry communications, collaboration networks

The lessons of VOIP are helping expand and combine rich communications and collaboration on military networks.

Although military technologists sometimes talk about the Global Information Grid in the present tense, one element of the GIG vision that is still in the works is the implementation of a global everything-over-IP network that allows phone, videoconferencing and other synchronous communications to ride over the same IP network that e-mail and other data communications use.

The transition to unified communications and collaboration is also playing out in the corporate world, where voice-over-IP (VOIP) phones are appearing more frequently. Richer communications sessions that combine voice, video, chat, Web collaboration and desktop application sharing are also becoming more common. And the same is true in the military — at least, in certain enclaves that have deployed the required network upgrades. But making such services span the full breadth and depth of the military is a much bigger challenge and will take years to achieve.

“Scaling is always an issue,” said Pat Ryan, director of defense initiatives at Cisco Systems. Only a few large commercial organizations, such as Wal-Mart, might have network scaling challenges that rival those of the U.S. military, and even they don’t have the same life-or-death information security requirements, he added. “For the most part, industry does not require the same scale or information assurance.”

“Today, what we have are islands of IP telephony in oceans of TDM,” said James Reilly, chief of systems engineering, architecture and plans at the Defense Information Systems Agency, which is upgrading the military’s global networks for unified communications.

TDM, or time-division multiplexing, is the telephony standard the Defense Switched Network (DSN) uses. DISA also operates global IP networks that are used primarily for asynchronous data transmissions. But the goal is to get everything — including phone calls, phone conferencing and videoconferencing — working over IP, without sacrificing quality or reliability.

“In order to do that, we need to apply assured service techniques on IP networks, end to end, that today don't exist,” Reilly said.

As the everything-over-IP network is phased in, it should pay off in a few ways, including:

  • Less equipment to deploy and maintain because separate voice and data circuits will be unnecessary.
  • Reduced administrative, maintenance and technical training costs. As TDM is phased out, there will be less need for technicians specialized in maintaining military phone systems, which become just another application on the IP network.
  • Improved capabilities for multimode communication and collaboration. For example, a presence service tied to computer and phone systems can indicate who is at their desks. Employee directories can include real-time information that provides clues as to whether someone would be best reached by desk phone, instant message or mobile phone — or via IP radio mounted in a Humvee or carried by a soldier in the mountains of Afghanistan. A common infrastructure would facilitate collaboration sessions that combine data exchange with voice or video.

“What I’m really talking about here, in terms of our communications and collaboration vision, is primarily the synchronous side,” Reilly said.

Riding VOIP’s coattails

As VOIP becomes more broadly deployed, other synchronous collaboration tools ride on its coattails. That’s because the Session Initiation Protocol that VOIP systems use to set up and tear down connections also works with video calls and other modes of communication, such as instant messaging. When a SIP device registers with a network, it provides information about its capabilities, such as whether it can display video. Some SIP devices also convey presence information for display in a network directory or instant messaging buddy list.

Presence detection is a key capability for military communications and collaboration because it should make it easier for an officer dealing with a crisis to quickly identify, locate and contact relevant experts; make command and control decisions; and issue orders, Reilly said.

DISA supports presence detection, Web conferencing and instant-messaging capabilities as part of its Net-Centric Enterprise Services program. Customers can choose between the e-CollabCenter, based on IBM’s Lotus Sametime, and the Defense Connect Online service, based on the combination of Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional and Jabber Extensible Communications Platform for instant messaging. Those two programs — often referred to as Button One and Button Two because the military sometimes offers users access to both — are competing to establish themselves, or at least their features, as the standard for military communication.

The use of asynchronous collaboration tools, such as blogs and wikis, is also growing in the military and intelligence communities, but such tools are more easily supported on existing data networks. Eventually, Reilly said, they might also take advantage of a richer network environment — for example, by allowing the reader of a blog to easily initiate a phone or video call with the blog’s author. Desktop software for data analysis, mapping, visualization and other applications could also be integrated with unified communications, allowing employees at different locations to work collaboratively with data while conducting a phone conference.

“What I’m describing is not where we are today, but it is where we envision we would like to get to,” Reilly said.

Overcoming IP’s limitations

The U.S. military pioneered the creation of the Internet protocols. But although packet-switched Internet networks won acceptance in the military for data transmission, until comparatively recently, they couldn’t challenge traditional circuit-switched phone technology for tasks such as transmitting the sound of a voice back and forth smoothly enough to support a conversation.

Data transmissions can tolerate the irregular delivery of packets to a greater extent, in the sense that if the transmission of an e-mail message is interrupted momentarily and restarts a second later, the recipient will probably never know the difference. But when delays and jittery delivery occur in the middle of a voice or videoconferencing transmission, they can ruin a conversation.

Network prioritization and quality-of-service techniques have emerged to address those issues by instructing the network to give voice and video preferential treatment over data that is more tolerant of delays. However, the challenge is still steep for military networks that need to stretch across satellite links and reach far into the field. DISA is working on providing voice and video services over IP that will match the reliability of the current DSN phone and videoconferencing systems.

One promising technique is to segment traffic with different requirements into separate virtual private networks within the IP network, combined with a related technology called VPN routing and forwarding. VPNs are usually thought of in terms of encrypting communications for privacy, but they can also be used to separate classes of traffic that require special treatment, Reilly said.

DISA is working toward an initial test deployment of end-to-end voice and video support on its Defense Information Systems Network that has a level of quality and reliability that Reilly promises will be as good as or better than what is available via DSN.

Jessie Showers, chief of the Real Time Services Division at DISA, said testing of those services will start this month with a small number of users and should reach the initial operational capability phase by April 2010. A second spiral phase of the deployment will include a transition to IPv6, which supports a larger number of network addresses to help the military stay ahead of the growth in the volume of connected devices. Participating network vendors are already required to demonstrate that their equipment supports IPv6 or can be upgraded to support it, Showers said.

The network backbone upgrade should be complete by July 2011, he added. A lot of work will remain for DISA customers who want to take full advantage of unified communications at GIG scale, but at that point, they won’t be able to point to DISA as the bottleneck, Showers said.

Secret networks on fast track

In some ways, the unified communications effort is further along on the military’s Secret IP Router Network (SIPRnet) than on NIPRnet, the parallel Unclassified but Sensitive IP Router Network. SIPRnet users can already take advantage of a phone service DISA calls voice over secure IP. Because access to SIPRnet is restricted, the network is smaller and has less competition for bandwidth, making reliable delivery of voice and video easier to achieve.

“On the SIPRnet side, you don’t have a connection to the Internet, so you’re able to control your bandwidth better,” Reilly said. Because NIPRnet is connected to the Internet — albeit with the protection of firewalls and other security devices — it poses greater information assurance and security challenges, he added.

For similar reasons, the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS) network operated by the Defense Intelligence Agency for carrying top-secret information is also further along on the unified communications path.

“On the classified side, I would say we’re probably significantly ahead of where most commercial organizations are today,” said Michael Mestrovich, senior technology officer for innovation at DIA.

The agency supports about 1,100 videoconferencing rooms, 2,400 desktop videoconferencing units and 19,000 VOIP phones on the JWICS network. The videoconferencing systems are integrated to the extent that desktop and room-based systems can be connected to the same meeting. Ideally, a user who could only get to a VOIP phone would be able to join a videoconference as a voice-only participant, but that level of integration hasn’t been achieved yet.

And because those systems grew up in parallel, there is also some redundancy between them, Mestrovich said. “We recognize that instead of having three call manager systems and infrastructure staffs, they need to be merged together,” he added.

Furthermore, officials have not yet fully exploited some of the possibilities for enriching collaboration by using presence detection, Mestrovich said.

Deploying unified communications far out into the field will be challenging for all branches of the military. For example, at many critical locations in Afghanistan, mountainous terrain blocks line-of-sight communication and forces warfighters to depend on satellite connections. Besides dramatically reducing the available bandwidth, satellite links introduce a delay of about 600 milliseconds into every transmission.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean voice and video traffic won’t function, but getting these tools out to the very edge in austere environments is going to be one of the most challenging aspects,” Mestrovich said.

DIA’s networking efforts are largely independent of DISA’s, said Grant Schneider, DIA’s chief information officer. The agency takes advantage of wide-area networking bandwidth supplied by DISA, but DIA data is encrypted for transmission and managed separately, he said. DIA employees have access to SIPRnet, but cross-domain connections between JWICS and SIPRnet are tightly controlled and do not include unified communications, he added.

Schneider said he expects to continue offering richer unified communications capabilities to JWICS users. But figuring out the best way to do it is not necessarily easy, he said. For example, there are trade-offs that come with trying to pack too many modes of communications into one device, such as asking a PC to handle voice and video on top of other tasks, Schneider said.

“Some would say that for optimum command and control, you really want a separate mechanism for voice and video communication,” he added.

Consolidating equipment

Although there might be times when two devices are better than one, a big part of the military’s push toward unified communications comes from the desire for consolidation.

Reilly said part of the reason DISA initiated VOIP support on SIPRnet was that combatant commanders with sensitive missions demanded a way to simplify their equipment requirements. “They wanted the deployed user to be able to minimize the footprint he takes out with him on a deployment,” Reilly said. “When it comes to communications, they would like to have one device — an IP device.”

Besides lightening the load for deployed troops, moving to unified communications should also save money, said Charlie Kawasaki, chief technical officer at PacStar, which sells military networking systems based on Cisco Systems' unified computing product line. Every piece of military networking equipment must be ruggedized and otherwise modified to meet military requirements, he added.

“If you don’t have everything over IP, you’re shipping out your deployable team with a whole bunch of extra equipment, such as IP-to-serial converters,” he said. “Every additional piece of equipment is incredibly expensive for a whole bunch of reasons.”

Beyond the cost of the hardware, supporting separate phone circuits means doubling up on the technicians needed to support them and all the logistical costs that go with shipping the equipment and feeding, clothing, transporting and protecting the people, he added.

“And then you’ve got to take everything I’ve just said and multiply by at least two” because of the need to support both NIPRnet and SIPRnet and possibly other networks such as JWICS, Kawasaki said.

PacStar unified communications equipment is already deployed in hot, dusty environments for the military and includes units that connect independently via satellite and support multiple voice and data users. But for the most part, even when VOIP is supported in the field, calls have to be converted to TDM for "trunking" across DISA's network, Kawasaki said. PacStar is in the process of getting its gear certified to support IP trunking of calls once DISA allows it, meaning that calls could be carried end-to-end over the worldwide IP network.

Some of the most cutting-edge applications of unified communications are taking place far out in the field rather than at headquarters locations, Ryan said, citing the use of Jabber chat as part of battle command communications. The military is starting to take advantage of such technological capabilities to satisfy immediate tactical needs, he added, even as the lengthy acquisition process hinders the implementation of unified communications on a larger scale.

Reilly said one of the challenges is bringing together voice, video and data communication programs that were traditionally separate. On the other hand, bringing them together is part of the point.

“Once we have unified messaging all in one place, that should allow you to have not only more efficiency in your business process or your mission process but also it enables you to make decisions faster,” he said. “And that’s the really important thing for the military users.”