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Mobile Cisco router lands with Marine Corps

The U.S. Marine Corps is incorporating a space-saving mobile router from Cisco Systems into the design of a new amphibious vehicle.

As part of a push to bring data closer the battlefield, the U.S. Marine Corps is creating an amphibious vehicle that is essentially a floating, rolling computing center wrapped in armor. And a key technology behind this project is a miniature router from Cisco Systems.

Cisco has shrunken its router from something fit for the closet to something smaller than a cake box. And without it, the Marines would have a hard time getting their new amphibious assault vehicle to do a fraction of what it will be capable of when it hits the battlefield.

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The Marine Corps' advanced amphibious assault vehicle command center is part of the military's push to make data mobile and accessible to every part of the military, from the decision-makers at the Pentagon to those in war ships and planes down to the soldier in the field, said Lt. Col. Harry Oldland.

This vehicle, which is already in its second round of prototype, is scheduled to roll out in 2007. It has seven workstations, which Marines use to manipulate four major systems on board -- one that maps and databases the friendly troops, one that does the same for enemy troops, one that maps tactical strikes from artillery and the air, and an e-mail server. The vehicle is also tied into global positioning satellite systems for navigation.

All that data needs to get routed on the local network and in and out of the vehicle through various means of communication, from 100 gigabit Ethernet to the skinniest 16K bit/sec satellite link, and multiple radio links in the bandwidths in between. What Oldland needed was a router, specifically a Cisco 7200 series router, since that is already standard throughout the Marine Corps.

But when the vehicle was in its early planning stages, nothing like that could be found. Oldland was faced with the possibility of engineering his own, something he was not looking forward to. "We don't want to be in that business," he said. "We want to be in the war fighting business."

When Oldland took the problem to Cisco, he found that the company was in the midst of developing a product similar to what Oldland was looking for. Oldland's team was able to have some input into Cisco's development process. They didn't get every detail they were looking for, but Oldland said the final product came pretty close.

Cisco's mobile access router is specifically designed to be mounted in a vehicle or another mobile platform. And its purpose is to route data across multiple networks, said Sam Ezekiel, general manager of Cisco's mobile access business unit.

While he readily admits that it is unlikely that the cars that the average person drives will need this technology any time in the near future, there are plenty of applications for the router outside the military's souped-up command center on wheels.

Airplanes and trains could use the router, Ezekiel said. They are mobile and need to access data from systems as varied as cellular and wireless LANs, as well as satellite and even hard-wired connections. Ambulances and police departments that need constant connectivity while on the move and the ability to communicate among departments could find the product very useful, he said.

Unlike other solutions for roaming across multiple wireless networks that require software on the client device, Cisco's mobile router does not require any special software on the other end of the transmission. That makes communication between unrelated departments easier, Ezekiel said.

While the mobile router can be a very useful tool, it will not cure all ills, said Chris Kozup, a senior research analyst with Meta Group Inc., the Stamford, Conn., research firm. As the data jumps from one kind of network to another, there will be, at best, some latency. With a virtual private network connection added to this system, it is likely that users may have to log back in every time they switch from one network to another.

The best applications for this kind of mobile system will be those that do not require constant connectivity, but those that have some sort of store and forward function, he said.

While his vehicle and the application that it will use have some distance to go, Oldland said he is excited about the leap that the Marine Corps is taking with this vehicle. "This is a very exciting time to be in the military," he said. "We are starting to exploit data communications."

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