In today's increasingly high-tech military environment, when a country goes to war, its network goes to war. And in the most recent conflict in Iraq, the 335th Theater Signal Command deployed, in just 120 days, the largest combat network the military had ever assembled.
The resulting network, not to mention its value to those on the ground, was so impressive that the editors of SearchNetworking.com gave the U.S. Army the Network Trailblazer Innovator Award at the Networking Decisions conference in Atlanta this month. The Innovator Awards were sponsored by Cisco Systems.
Because of the lengthy and uncertain political process that led up to the war, network planning was a challenge, said Major Tom Lantzy, chief of the information services division of the 335th Theatre Signal Command. At first, he thought he'd be deploying in Turkey, but when the Turkish government denied the U.S. permission to operate from its country, Kuwait became the network's home base.
The Army turned what had been a seven-person networking operation into a network that required a staff of 100. The network needed to grow from a throughput of 12 Mbps to 140 Mbps. And it needed to support not only remote users but users that would move every day. Users from different branches of the military running different versions of the same operating system would be logging onto the network. All of this was accomplished with personnel that had been on the job for 18 to 24 months at best, said Lantzy.
"I can't say enough about the individual soldiers who, in the absence of guidance, made this happen," Lantzy said. "It was a tremendous responsibility. It's not the bottom line that suffers if they screw up."
The network eventually grew to include 500 to 600 routers and 106 digital voice switches that could handle up to 40,000 calls an hour. The entire network supported 130,000 soldiers. And it used links as various as satellite, microwave and radio.
In addition to just building out the massive network, the team had to work with multiple branches of the military. It was like merging four companies onto a single network in 120 days, Lantzy said.
For example, different branches of the military use different routing protocols, Lantzy explained. The army uses Open Shortest Path First (OSPF) whereas U.S. Central Command uses Enhanced Interior Gateway Routing Protocol (EIGRP). Many soldiers had to learn new protocols on the eve of battle.
Environmental conditions also posed plenty of challenges. While the transmission technology such as satellite worked without problem through the sand storms of the early days of the war, other components did not work so well. The sand was a fine as flour, said First Sergeant Charles Brainard, chief system engineer of the network. The sand would clog up the filters on the cooling system of many devices, and filters had to be cleaned daily.
Security, particularly in a war zone, is also a concern. If the enemy can hack the network connection or capture a device, lives may be at stake. Every transmission, regardless of the medium, is encrypted. Classified material is encrypted twice. All of the data devices are equipped with a feature that, with the push of the button, allows a soldier to wipe a device clean of data, rendering it useless should it be captured.
The key to a project as unwieldy and unprecedented as this is planning, Lantzy said: "There is no substitute for it."
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