As the Navy retakes control over its own IT network, it’s eager to begin introducing new technologies to improve the experience of the 800,000 people who use it every day.
At the same time, it’s warning vendors that they’ll have to cross several thresholds if they want to gain a foothold into the world’s largest private IT network.
Service leaders have been careful to manage users’ expectations while the Navy transitions the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI) from a contractor owned-and-operated network to the new NGEN contract, in which the Navy will once again own its network assets and intellectual property.
Officials reassure that even though the business arrangement with the prime contractor, HP, is changing, the NGEN version of NMCI is going to perform an awful lot like it did before the contract change, at least in the immediate term.
As the Navy buys back the IT infrastructure it’s been using for more than a decade, the service says it’s also introducing an IT service management (ITSM) process that aims to incrementally add new technological innovations that will improve NMCI’s performance and capabilities, and do so at a much speedier pace than the past performance of the government’s IT procurement process would suggest.
Any new innovations will meet several key criteria before the Navy brings them aboard NMCI. Most importantly, they will have to be a validated business need for Navy users.
Rapid innovation cell process
Capt. Michael Abreau, who manages the Naval Enterprise Networks program office, said the Navy will handle the gatekeeping function through an ITSM agreement the Navy recently struck with HP, which follows a set of management processes in the latest version of the Information Technology Infrastructure Library.
“We’re going to work with our mission partners, our resource sponsors and our service provider to evaluate solutions together that make sense going forward, and we’re going to do it in this ITSM process,” Abreau said at the AFCEA Navy IT day on Wednesday. “We’re definitely taking a more active role, but we’re not going to insert anything on our own. We need to be able to evaluate industry solutions effectively so that we understand the benefits, and HP can clearly articulate the benefits. HP is still our service provider, they’re in the driver’s seat, and that has not changed under NGEN. Industry needs to continue to respect their role as service provider to the Navy.”
To identify technologies as potential candidates for NMCI, the Navy will use a “rapid innovation cell” it created last year within the office of the program executive officer for enterprise information systems, led by Victor Gavin.
The “cell” doesn’t have an address or a single point of contact. Rather, Gavin characterized it as a broader policy effort that will look for creative ways for the Navy to adopt the best of what industry has to offer without running afoul current acquisition rules.
“We need to come up with a better approach to keep ourselves more current, to keep the network safe and to better leverage the things that industry provides,” he said. “We believe this process is the first step in doing this. We want to prototype industry products in our environment, and that puts us in a competitive environment. We usually talk about competition in a way that involves an RFP and an industry day. Then a year later, you have a contract award. That’s not fast. I have to create an environment that has competition built into it and puts you next door to your competitors in a way that puts you on the network the next day after the evaluation is done. We have to make some of those decisions quicker.”
Abreau listed a handful of the categories of service and product offerings his office is most interested in as it modernizes NMCI. Among them: improved cybersecurity services, assistance with consolidating data centers and an accelerated transition to mobile computing.
“Would I love to give an iPad to every sailor in the fleet? Absolutely. Would my financial and requirement sponsors fund that? I think that would probably be cost prohibitive,” he said. “We have to make these decisions smartly, but mobility is definitely a growth area for us so that we can get more productivity out to the fleet.”
Two conditions for upgrades
To make it through the IT service management gauntlet the Navy is setting up, Abreau said vendors will need to check several boxes.
Unsurprisingly, the service says it will buy only things that are cybersecure and cost effective.
“And that’s different than ‘affordable,'” he said. “‘Affordable’ means I spent all of my budget. Cost effective means I got the biggest bang for the buck.”
Also, Abreau said, the Navy is putting a premium on speed, including the ability to bring new technology into the Navy’s existing infrastructure, but also whether a new innovation will change the network’s day-to-day performance.
“We don’t want you to offer a solution that involves adding latency to the network,” he said. “Speed is king in this world.”
Abreau also hinted at an issue that has challenged NMCI for years. Countless vendors have offered ideas to improve NMCI, pointing out that they’ve already proved themselves in the world’s biggest corporate IT networks. But the Navy believes many of those vendors have come to the table without thoroughly examining the implications of applying their solutions to a complex, worldwide user base of 800,000 people.
“For some solutions, 10,000 users might be a big number. But 800,000 users across the globe is a different animal,” he said. “These things also have to be executable. We’re no good if we can’t deliver what we’ve promised to the fleet, on time and on budget. I can create lots of fancy things on a spreadsheet, but I need these things to be as realistic as possible before we engage with HP and assess them for the enterprise.”
The Navy and HP still are in the process of transitioning NMCI to full government ownership.
The Marine Corps has already parted ways with HP and fully owns and operates its share of the network.
HP will continue to operate the Navy’s portion of NMCI for the foreseeable future, but officials say they’re still on track to complete the process of buying back the network infrastructure from the company by the end of September.
On DoD focuses on the programs and policies that affect the Defense Department. Each week, Defense Reporter Jared Serbu speaks one-on-one and in depth with the people responsible for managing the inner workings of the federal government's largest department, and those who know it best.