Army initiates software development changes

Federal News Radio's Jason Miller reports

wfedstaff | June 3, 2015 5:04 pm

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

The Army has taken the success of its approach with its Apps for the Army program and made it policy.

Lt. Gen. Jeff Sorenson, the recently-retired Army chief information officer, and Malcolm O’Neill, the assistant secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology (ALT), co-authored a memo Nov. 3 outlining the first of a three-part effort to change the way the service buys and implements software.

The memo details a common operating environment (COE) architecture for the Army Enterprise Network.


“The COE architecture specifically is about standardizing the end user environments, enough so that applications can be tested against a known configuration and when loaded, they run as intended,” said Carol Wortman, the Army’s acting director of the Architecture Integration Center, in an interview with Federal News Radio. “Secondarily, the COE specifies standards for securely sharing information across the Army.”

Wortman added that while the Army does have a standardized computing environment, it doesn’t extend to all operating systems or applications.

“Today, the system providers procure the hardware and configure the operating systems and any middleware they use on their own, which makes it difficult for us to load multiple capabilities onto the system,” she said.

She said examples of this problem come when developers work on databases or run time engines that are different versions or even different applications that provide things such as chat capabilities. Wortman said they need to be standardized and have basic interoperability.

“The standards include everything from specific interfaces between the different systems for document sharing or for data interfaces to use XML and the SOAP interface to operating systems on how to properly configure the operating system so it’s secure on the network,” she said.

The Army hopes the end result from the COE and the broader move to agile software development is to bring innovative capabilities faster and cheaper to the warfighter.

“We can significantly reduce the support and training needed to use the different devices,” she said. “People can start moving to this and take advantage of innovation more quickly by merging new innovation onto an existing system.”

The COE is one part of the overall software transformation strategy. The Army also is working on streamlining processes and establishing a marketplace for soldiers and civilians – and eventually others in the Defense Department – to build and find applications quickly.

Last summer, the Army showed just how this approach could work through the Apps for the Army program.

Army teams or individuals created 25 applications in five broad areas that are now available through the DoD storefront.

The contest helped shape the COE policy, Wortman said.

“The largest area it really supported was the streamlined processes and establishment of the marketplace,” she said. “The Apps for the Army significantly reduced the time it takes to test and certify apps.”

Wortman said the Army is accepting new applications starting in November and running through January. It’s not a contest like the Army held previously but just an opportunity for soldiers and civilians to develop and submit software they think would help the service meet its mission.

“We had great success for Apps for the Army so we are going to institutionalize that for civilians and military personnel,” she said.

Wortman said Apps for the Army 2 is coming later this summer.

“We are looking for industry this time to build apps,” she said. “It will be a little different this time where we’ve specified gaps we have in the Army we are looking to fill with these apps. Initially we are going to do a social networking piece to further define these gaps and then we are going to launch the specific gap questions. We are looking for about 10 of them for industry to take about 30 to 60 days to write apps against them. We are expecting this time to have a lot larger number of apps to be produced against these questions. We will review the apps to see how well they meet what the Army needs.”

Wortman added the Army will have a better understanding the second time around with the initiative on certain issues but also is preparing to address new challenges.

For instance, the Army is better prepared to make the testing and certification of the apps happen more quickly. Wortman said the Army also grasps what it has to do so the apps can be released to the public and used on soldiers and civilians’ personal cells or smartphones.

At the same time, the Apps for the Army 2 initiative will cause the Army to rethink how it buys software. Currently, it buys a certain number of software licenses to go on a specific number of machines. But the apps model could change the approach the Army takes.

“Over the next three months we will be working through different alternatives and how to solve that problem,” she said. “There are multiple answers and we may want to use multiple answers depending on the type of vendors we have. A smaller company may want to be paid by use and a larger company may want go with a different model, maybe an enterprise license type of use, so you negotiate a larger price with the government upfront but it could be used on an unlimited number of devices.”

The Apps for the Army 2 also shows the impact this overall software transformation strategy will have on contractors.

Wortman said the changes could present significant challenges for vendors who do business with the Army.

“Vendors will look at it from a risk perspective,” she said. “The Army will tell them, ‘Here’s a piece of software, you will build on it without modification,’ and it will help us that we are going to be able to put multiple applications on that and it will be easier for us to configure and maintain it.”

Wortman added that the vendors will incur more risk because they cannot be as flexible as they like. But the COE also should help them focus on the capabilities that the Army needs instead of the backend technology.

“It could be a big positive change,” she said. “We’re moving to an open, plug-and-play architecture and this is where industry is going with a lot of apps. You can innovate quickly and have a high-degree of assurance that a large number of people across the Army can use the products you built. You are looking more at volume of users using your app. And even where you have a small volume, some kind of cool innovation that should be very quick to distribute to get to our warfighters’ hands.”

The Army will issue an implementation plan later this winter for the COE policy. Wortman said it will cover how the Army will transition systems to the COE architecture.

She added that it likely will take several years, with new systems and those in theater changing first.

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