The Army's Network of the Future Will Be Software-Defined

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Looking ahead to the years 2025-2040, the Army chief information officer has envisioned an agile, dynamic network that relies on software and intelligence to win battles.

What will the Army’s network of the future look like? That’s still unclear, but the service branch has laid out a vision of the elements it will incorporate, including a software-defined networking (SDN) architecture and the ability to connect to numerous mobile devices and sensors at the network edge.  

Army Chief Information Officer Lt. Gen. Robert Ferrell outlined the vision recently with the publication of the Army's new strategy, “Shaping the Army Network: 2025-2040.” The document provides the long-term strategic direction for the Army’s network efforts and documents how the Army aspires to evolve its network technology in the decades ahead.

The plan focuses on five key technology areas: dynamic transport, computing and edge sensors; data to decisive action; human cognitive enhancement; robotics and autonomous operations; and cybersecurity and resiliency.

The network of the future

Ferrell told reporters during a March 31 roundtable that, as the Army plans decades into the future, the new strategy is “not focused on widgets; it's focused on conceptual areas,” according to FCW.  He said focusing on hardware would be foolish, “because as soon as it came out on the street it would have been dated.”

According to the report, by 2040, the Army wants every level of its command structure to be able to access its network, down to the individual soldier, who must be able to continuously coordinate with and contact higher echelons of command. Soldiers must also be able to arrive at battles fully informed of the threats they face and allies they have, and they must retain interoperability and synchronization with their mission partners.

To support a more agile and remotely deployed force, the report states that “the network must evolve to support” several kinds of technologies. One is dynamic transport, which is the ability to send and access information regardless of the network connection. In an interview with FedTech, Joe Howard, director of sales for Brocade’s Army business at Brocade Federal, said that the different technologies — wireline, Wi-Fi, cellular — need to be interoperable with each other and learn from each other.

The report notes that another technology is dynamic computing, in which “computing infrastructure learns from operational information requirements and anticipates future needs to dynamically deploy applications and information on demand or in response to mission changes.” Additionally, as the number of devices on the network edge — mobile devices and sensors — continues to grow, commanders will need to tap into and exploit the data the devices generate in real time.

Howard says that the foundation of the new strategy, which he praised, is dynamic transport. “There has to be a network that is highly flexible, highly dynamic and highly scalable,” he says. The Army’s network of the future will also need to incorporate technologies like artificial intelligence, advanced identity and access management, and cybersecurity.

A software-defined networking future

A central element of the future network, Howard says, will be SDN. The Army notes that SDN “is a network architecture that is more dynamic, manageable and adaptable because it implements software control of devices using open standards.” SDN enables the Army (and commercial entities) to use software to control network functions via the cloud.   

Howard says the Army currently has more front-line soldiers configuring networks than it is comfortable with. By using SDN and related technologies like network-functions virtualization (the ability to virtualize hardware functions and turn them into software within their networks), the Army wants its network of the future to be more intelligent and automated.

As an example of what that could look like, Howard points to a capability the Army calls “Unit Task Reorganization,” or UTR. At a high level, he says, this refers to battle groups coming together, breaking apart and reconfiguring themselves. All of that requires constant changes to the network and configuration of end-user devices. SDN can automate that process so the network has the intelligence to recognize users and authenticate them depending on their location and credentials.

To reach that vision, Howard says the Army will need to start purchasing more pieces of network hardware, such as routers and switches that are SDN-capable.

The Army also anticipates its future network handling a large growth of connected devices as part of the Internet of Things. “The challenge for the network of 2040 is to support the growth in new information, the game-changing opportunity to combine data in innovative ways, and the need to deliver raw and combined data locally, regionally and globally to a diverse set of users,” the report says. “The expansion of IoT devices will drive the need to strengthen machine-to-machine local wired or wireless networks, and the dynamic transport infrastructure.”

Right now, the Army’s network is “not really built to handle the Internet of Things,” Howard says, adding that “clearly, the network will need to be upgraded to handle the scale of the Internet of Things, particularly mobile devices.”

Over time, more connected devices and sensors will be connected to the Army’s network, Howard says. “A decade from now [the volume of devices connected] will be dramatically bigger than it is now,” he adds.

Long-term changes to the army’s IT workforce

How will the Army change its training and recruitment so that soldiers can work with and manage the network of the future? Howard says that SDN-based networks can be run with far fewer people than traditional networks.

However, he says that the Army will need soldiers with different skill sets. “The Army is going to have to start hiring — as is all of industry, it’s not unique to the Army— a new breed of engineer that is both network-savvy and has some programming chops,” he says.

Currently, the Army’s training of soldiers for its network is “very vendor-specific,” Howard says. That will change over time as the Army embraces SDN, which tends to use commodity hardware that is configured via software.

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