The Navy says a smart acquisition strategy, including heavy reliance on off-the-shelf technology and frequent competition, has resulted in a price tag far below what officials had originally estimated for its huge revamp of shipboard information technology.
So far, the Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services program (CANES) has cost 44 percent less than what Defense officials projected, the program manager responsible for the project told an industry gathering last week. He said the savings came mostly from competition, and that the Navy would repeat the competition process every four years.
CANES is the Navy’s answer to a typical DoD IT problem: technology heterogeneity. The Navy’s fleet has more than 280 ships, and few of the IT systems on board those vessels look alike. “When you take all of the network components, the different network baselines, the operating systems and the applications that ride on all of those and multiply them all together, it’s a total of 632 baselines that have to be sustained, operated and maintained out there in the fleet. That’s impossible to do. We can’t afford it,” Capt. DJ LeGoff, the Navy’s program manager for CANES and other tactical networks, told AFCEA Northern Virginia attendees at the chapter’s annual Navy IT conference in Vienna, Va.
CANES is supposed to replace the technology systems across much of the Navy fleet — 180 vessels by 2020 — with one common architecture. But rather than building a huge, military-specific system from the ground up, the Navy decided to rely almost entirely on commercial technologies and constantly compete for the lowest bid to keep that technology up to date.
“There’s no new science involved in CANES, it’s really a business process,” he said. “What we did is we took our five basic networks that we have at sea and smashed them all together. Instead of having them grow at different rates with different funding streams, different requirements and different or non-existing technology refresh, we’re going to meet all of the requirements with a common architecture. This way we can continue to keep pace with industry. We’re going to have the same infrastructure on the ship regardless of the enclave that you’re using. Why we didn’t do it that way in the first place is a bunch of hindsight.”
First CANES award could be worth $638 million
The Navy awarded a $37 million contract earlier this year to Northrup Grumman for the initial design of CANES, which could grow to $638 million if the service exercises all contract options. The Navy expects the first installation onboard an operational ship to happen late this year, and another 30 vessels could soon follow if Navy engineers sign off on the design.
But the Navy is far from locked-in to Northrop’s implementation of CANES. Legoff said the Navy will re-compete the contract for the next round of ships. That’s possible, he said, because proprietary solutions are strictly prohibited under the acquisition strategy. The Navy owns all the data rights to the system, and offering a proposal that doesn’t meet open standards is the best way to get kicked off the contract, he said.
To up the ante on the anti-proprietary attitude toward CANES, the Navy is taking the lead on much of the software work that might ordinarily be handled by a traditional systems integrator. A segment of CANES called Afloat Core Services (ACS) — the services-oriented architecture that will form a key part of the common system — was not part of the contract the Navy awarded earlier this year. The Navy will maintain ACS on its own as a government set of services and the result will be products that are entirely open-source, Legoff said.
CANES is rumored to be getting GAO praise for its nontraditional approach to government IT acquisition. Rear Adm. William Leigher told the same conference that the Government Accountability Office heralded CANES during the past week as one of the best managed programs in government.
CANES has not been mentioned in any recent GAO reports. A Navy spokesman later said that the GAO assessment was part of a report that has yet to be released to the public, and a GAO spokesman was not able to immediately verify Leigher’s claim.
In any case, CANES isn’t just about building a new network, LeGoff said. The Navy already performs many mission-critical things with its proliferation of existing shipboard IT systems, and those missions have to continue.
“If all we do is field a network called CANES on ships, I’d consider ourselves a phenomenal failure. The whole idea here is to not just field a network, it’s to field an end-to-end capability,” he said. “The challenge is taking the applications out there and integrating them into this baseline. We have to make sure that they’re interoperable, that they’re accredited, that they’re supported and make sure there’s documentation for all of that.”
No plans to integrate CANES with NGEN
That’s easier on paper than in reality, Legoff said. CANES is going to be the sum of a lot of parts, each of which previously had its own approval authorities and funding streams in the DoD budget maze.
“Applications and systems like to have their own budgets. We’re taking that away from them,” he said. Doing enterprise stuff is not just hard from a technological perspective, it’s hard from a political perspective.”
The Navy has yet to develop a clear plan to integrate CANES with its primary shore-side IT system, the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI), which will soon become the Navy’s Next Generation Enterprise Network (NGEN).
NMCI was the Navy’s first major venture into IT commonality, and with 700,000 users, Navy officials say it is currently the largest single computer network in the world with the exception of the public Internet. Hewlett Packard currently operates NMCI under a temporary agreement with the Navy until NGEN takes hold. A final request for proposals for the re-fashioned NGEN is expected within days.
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-9 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, DC region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.