by James Ward
In terms of impact, no single system, strategy or focus in the Army has been a greater change agent than computers and the networks that have linked them together. In fact, as early as 1984, officials with the U.S. Army’s Information Systems Command forecasted the Army’s growing reliance on the computer. In doing so, they were determined to shorten the acquisition cycle while being mindful of the "total cost of ownership."
In those days, like today, new systems were being birthed, replacing old capabilities/machines and adding staggering capacity to the Army’s voice, data and messaging process. By 1984, it became clear that the Army needed a place to test and validate information-technology capabilities and tools for follow-on integration and application within the Army’s infrastructure.
Such was the brainchild of visionaries like retired LTG Emmett Paige, who launched the Small Computer Engineering Center in Fort Huachuca, Ariz.,’s Splinter Village. In those days, computing was immature compared with today’s supercomputers and broadband high-speed networks.
This decision represented a quantum leap forward in the Army’s vision and commitment to the future of information-systems integration, which was sparked by the sweeping changes the personal computer was introducing to the world. In a way, it represented a kind of "Manhattan Project" for IT.
Historically, in the years following World War II, many engineers and computer scientists believed in the old acquisition cycle. They believed that the intensive waterfall method of design, build, test and field had served the military well, so if it isn’t broken, why fix it, Paige said.
"There was no doubt in my mind that it was an almost impossible task to change the culture of the scientists and engineers who had come along after World War II. They wanted no part of using commercial communications and computers on the battlefield, and that attitude also permeated the Army combat-development community at Fort Gordon, Ga., and the troop units in the field," Paige said. "Most of them were unaware that the Army Signal community had gone into World War II with commercial products from AT&T or Western Electric and the ham radio (amateur radio), and it was that same equipment that took us through the Korean War."
With the PC’s advent, the Army needed to develop a process to identify machines with the necessary capabilities at a time when a lot of computer makers were bursting on the scene. The Army also needed to support Signal leaders’ decisions to purchase commercially built PCs.
To do this meant establishing a center for computing excellence that could act as the honest broker in the dizzying world of claim and counterclaim made by vendors. Signal leaders, Paige among them, felt it was critical to develop an in-house capability to distinguish between market hype and product capabilities. This was the focus that formed the basis for Information Systems Engineering Command’s initial SCEC.
"Our intent was that no computer would be purchased for Army use unless it had been evaluated and given a seal of approval by SCEC. It was our intent that the project managers and program managers at Fort Monmouth, N.J., would have a cell of experts to help and advise them in their task of providing the Army with the capabilities they needed at the lowest total cost of ownership," Paige said.
In those days, SCEC operated as a kind of "skunk works" group with a small staff of around 20 engineers, most of them young officers and students who could get in on the ground floor of equipment testing and evaluation. Then, as they moved up in rank or position, they would be in place to influence the way technology would be used around the military. Taking their places would be the next class of technology leaders.
Jo Tate Osborne, who served as the center’s senior electronics engineer and deputy in the early years, remembers SCEC’s mission. "SCEC’s role was twofold. We were tasked to review each of the components on the Army’s mini/microcomputer contracts and ensure the Army was getting the best value for its dollar. We also assisted the systems engineers in selecting the most appropriate platforms for their applications," she said.
Another key member of the staff was Ron Boggie, who served in a number of capacities within ISEC and the context of SCEC, which later became known as the Computer Engineering Center. Boggie believed the "slick" advertising brochures and new product briefings which promised performance were directed more at outdistancing the competition than meeting the needs of the kind of large-scale competitive procurement the military was demanding.
"The success of SCEC and CEC as centers of technical excellence was, and still is, imperative. At stake (in the early years) was the development and transition of an Army expert technical force, capable of influencing and shaping the computer industry’s direction," Boggie said.
This process was also highlighted by the highest standard of integrity.
"The staff knew their evaluations, along with their close ties to supporting vendors, would influence the shape of IT and production of vendor products. We simply had to ensure our reports were completely free of personal opinion and based solely on empirical results. That’s how seriously we took it then, and that’s still the case today," said Dr. Frank Jenia, ISEC’s deputy commander/technical director.
Echoing those remarks is one of ISEC’s early CEC military engineers, whose pioneering work led the military down the domain-nameserver road.
"One thing the vendor community learned from us was that we stayed in our lane. We were the Underwriters’ Laboratories for computing in the military in that when we published a report, everyone who read it knew we had stuck to the facts," said MAJ Curt Vincent, who served in CEC from 1985-1990.
"All small-computer software and hardware had to pass our evaluations. They had to be non-proprietary. We take that for granted now, but back then, it was no fun. We had tons and tons of stovepipe information systems, which couldn’t talk to each other. Within a particular military organization, the personnel systems didn’t talk to the logistics systems, so data had to be entered twice or printed out and re-entered. This had to go," Vincent added.
But this was only the beginning. The next chapter for CEC, which was renamed the Technology Integration Center, was only just around the corner.
The leap from single-box evaluations to where TIC is today, ensuring "systems integration," began with evaluations the team conducted on servers, routers, switches and local-area networks.
According to retired COL Chuck Stanley, who served as Paige’s operations chief, despite Paige’s desire to keep SCEC a small laboratory for computing, the military’s need for more and more IT kept expanding the center’s scope and mission.
"We knew the Army had been using commercial systems like radios and teletype for a long time. But the PC was just coming into its own, and what we didn’t want was a hundred different systems floating around. We also didn’t want the Army to buy whole systems that later turned out not to help us communicate by computer," Stanley said. "CEC really made the difference, and as its reputation grew, so did its staff. So even though Paige wanted it to be small, it was inevitable that the place would grow."
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, it became clear CEC would be asked to do systems-of-systems or end-to-end integration testing. At first, this meant sending engineers to Army installations, setting up a parallel system to the one being used in the field and running the evaluations.
It didn’t take long for ISEC to realize this method would be far too costly and disruptive to the Army. That’s when the practice of placing terminal emulators in the TIC laboratory began.
"The real breakthrough came when we were able to capture all the keystrokes being used in the field under what was called installation transition processing (the forerunner to sustaining-base information services) and simulate on a broad scale how that system would operate. For the first time, we could see where the bottlenecks were and recommend hardware and software fixes," said Dr. Michael Gentry, Army Signal Command’s senior technical director. "Now we had a place that could evaluate the entire system, and we could also help the Army look into the future with a certain high level of certainty and credibility."
Throughout its 16-year history, ISEC’s TIC, now part of Communications-Electronics Command, has also served as the Defense Department’s IT gatekeeper.
"Everyone in the vendor community knows if they want to sell a product to the Army, they should make plans to work with ISEC and get their box on our evaluation schedule. Most of them know this and, because of our reputation, they want to do business ‘the TIC way,’" said Jenia.
And what is "the TIC way?" According to Jenia, the TIC staff also acts as an innkeeper. They are responsible for the laboratories, test equipment, computers, networks and facilities and maintain them in a ready state to emulate any Army infrastructure for complete and unbiased evaluations. In computer-technology terms, this also means having access to ISEC’s full intellectual capacity, with its critical-skill-engineering experts in all areas of technology on the ground operating as an integrated team to run the vendor equipment and emulated infrastructure through the full range of evaluations. TIC can then provide the Army and the vendor the empirical evidence required to shorten the acquisition cycle at dramatically lower cost and risks to the government.
A value-added spinoff of these evaluations to the vendor community is that vendors get their products, with many of them only in a beta phase, completely integrated in a heterogeneous environment and evaluated with a complete evaluation report. In many cases, TIC discovers anomalies and problems with vendor products, which provides the vendor the opportunity to fix products before vendors make the product commercially available.
According to Tate, TIC is respected throughout the defense establishment as an organization that has changed the way computing is done – on every post, camp and station in the military.
"Without the efforts of that very focused group, thousands of Army offices wouldn’t have gotten the products they needed, and not only the Army has benefited. The Defense Department now has cost-effective contract vehicles for commercial computing/networking capabilities because of Paige’s vision and the hard work of ISEC’s focused team," Tate said.
According to Paige, TIC’s value continues to grow because it has stayed close to its original charter of being the one place in the defense community where IT professionals can go to get a true picture of the system they’re working on.
This includes such cutting-edge technologies as gigabit ethernet (which will help greatly speed up traffic flow on installations’ campus-area networks), modeling and simulation, Public Key Infrastructure, security, knowledge management, multimedia, voice and data over Internet protocol, and a whole host of other applications and technologies.
TIC also supports the Army by performing the functions of the Common User Installation Transport Network engineer, which provides Army camps, posts and stations with the state of the art in installation, information and infrastructure components – and also works with other ISEC engineers to provide an information-systems "Delta Force" of IT professionals capable of short-notice support for troubleshooting network and systems problems throughout the command and the Army, said LTC Ed Wozniak, the center’s deputy.
"Although TIC has grown in size, it has grown in importance to the Army and the Defense Department. When I was the assistant secretary of defense for command, control, computers and intelligence, I fully supported the relationship between TIC and such other DoD agencies as the Joint Interoperability Test Command (at Fort Huachuca)," Paige said.
Throughout its 16-year history, ISEC’s TIC has, in the minds of military and civilian engineers and commercial vendors alike, added to the military’s ability to get the right box – which was thoroughly evaluated prior to fielding – into the end user’s hands.
"We’ve been able to leverage ISEC’s expertise and combine this with the fact that TIC holds the reputation as the top lab of its kind to really change IT’s whole nature. Members of ISEC evaluate and design integrated commercial IT we use out there, and that’s significant," Jenia said.
Mr. Ward, a retired Army noncommissioned officer, is employed by ISEC.
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