Transformative technology is tied into the Navy’s strategic planning and reflected in the theme of AFCEA WEST 2019: “Sharpening the Competitive Edge: Are We Ready to Compete, Deter, and Win Globally?”
The annual event drew more than 150,000 leaders and operators across the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, as well as government officials and industry representatives. The challenges and solutions presented at the conference provided invaluable insights for both senior officials and the vendor community.
Any discussion of digital transformation for the Navy involves security. “Much of what was brought up was in relation to FedRAMP,” according to Sean McDonald, Senior Sales Director Federal for SolarWinds. At the program level, it’s essential to get the certification, he explained, although many in the IT community recognize that security can—and often, should—go beyond the levels covered by that standard. McDonald added that government IT cyber security concerns are slowing down modernization to a degree, as Navy leadership is “extremely worried about data breaches.”
The other big technology factor that had attendees buzzing was, to no one’s surprise, the cloud. “Cloud, hybrid cloud, FedRAMP, security, and “hardening the network” were to be the topics we heard most,” McDonald said. “We had numerous discussions about securing data in the cloud, moving data to and from the cloud in a hybrid model, and moving legacy applications to the cloud.” Cloud services for federal agencies factor heavily in the DoD’s transformation effort and were discussed at length in numerous program updates at the event.
Digital modernization and its impact on readiness were also at the center of many of the discussions. “Complacency isn’t in the plan, so always improving the readiness position is paramount,” McDonald said. He referred to the next generation of CANES program as an important part of the Navy’s digital story. At issue for the Navy, McDonald explained, is the simple fact that ships are often disconnected from the land-based NOC or enterprise console, leading to questions about when connectivity is needed and what to do with the massive amount of data generated.
While afloat, there may not be a compelling reason to transmit or receive infrastructure and systems data to and from the Navy network, especially in a battle situation. “When ships are out at sea, they’re collecting information. When they come back to port and connect to the land-based network, now the question is, what happens to that data? Do we put it in the cloud, archive it, put it in a server at the enterprise console?” McDonald points out that, in most cases, it comes down to the application being managed.
How that data transfer occurs is another part of the equation. “There’s been a lot of discussion about CANES, and more specifically, the ADNS (Automated Digital Network System) part, to add more automation or even AI,” McDonald said. The goal, he explained, would be to streamline moving information back to the NOCs with less human intervention.
McDonald added that the Navy is aiming to achieve technology refreshes much more quickly than in even the recent past. “There’s an 18-month objective to refresh or retrofit every ship,” he said. “But they can only do a handful of ships at a time, and by the time they get through the fleet, some of that technology will be behind the curve.”
Still, one of the chief barriers to fully transforming the Navy’s digital footprint is the prevalence of legacy systems, McDonald said. There are two factors at play; first, budget limitations often get in the way of wholesale technology changes, but just as important, customers have told him, “We don’t have a solution that we really trust.”
But there’s another factor to be considered, McDonald said. While updated technology is critical to the Navy’s ability to “compete, deter, and win,” the service’s leadership is asking, “What’s the ripple effect of my enterprise if I do that? Are we going to have a bandwidth issue in a wartime theater? Are we going to have opened it up to a breach? Or are we opening it up to application issues?”
To that last point, McDonald, points to the need for “fully-baked” applications. Many apps, he explains, are released commercially without being fully operational, depending on user feedback to finish the product. “You don’t have that luxury in a DoD environment because it’s got to work 100% of the time, every time,” he explained. With a commercial application, he said, “If it doesn’t necessarily work the way you designed it, you’ll get it right eventually. But you can’t take the same mentality in a DoD theater.”