Navy sees upcoming NGEN contract as opportunity to ‘rip and replace’ NMCI’s fundamental architecture

In less than a year, when the Navy begins to make what are expected to be massive contract awards for the latest iteration of its Next Generation Enterprise Network, it won’t merely be a restructuring of the business arrangements involved in delivering the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet.

Officials say that’s because NMCI is long overdue for some foundation changes to its architecture, something that hasn’t changed much since the network — now among the world’s largest intranets —was first conceived two decades ago.

That’s a contrast, said Capt. Ben McNeal, the program manager for naval enterprise networks, to how the Navy manages its afloat networks, which are not part of NMCI.

“Every four to six years, if we have the dollars, we do a full rip-and-replace of the network we have on board a ship,” McNeal said at the Department of the Navy chief information officer’s annual west coast gathering in San Diego. “We’ve never done that with NMCI. What we’ve done is a lot of obsolescence replacement intended to keep pace with the cybersecurity threat, but not a wholesale look at the architecture to figure out how it will meet our future needs. That’s ultimately where we want to be.”

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To a significant extent, that likely means focusing less on hosting data within NMCI itself, and more on making sure the network’s users can access information wherever it’s hosted — particularly in commercial cloud environments — from wherever those users happen to be, and from a wide array of devices. And for most of their communications, those users would take advantage of a unified, IP-based platform that would replace the Navy’s legacy circuit-switched architecture.

“We have a ways to go to get there, but ultimately we want a network that can flex, be able to withstand the cyber security threats in our joint environment and provide bandwidth almost on demand,” McNeal said. “We also need a virtualized fabric to support those applications and services that we continue to host, and obviously you want that to be all automatic, automated and orchestrated as well.”

However, since building its own services for unified capabilities and other modern and “cloud like” enterprise services would require a healthy amount of up-front investment, there’s also a significant likelihood that some of those technologies won’t be provided by NMCI under the NGEN contract at all, but as shared services with other DoD organizations.

The Navy has already publicly floated the idea of using the Defense Information Systems Agency’s forthcoming Defense Enterprise Office Solutions for email and other productivity services, but McNeal said budget considerations over the last several months had led the Navy to more seriously consider a wider array of shared services than it’s used in the past.

“The budget has pressurized us to make us look at [DISA] as an option where we had not been forced to previously,” he said. “When you can’t buy your own, you’re forced to go leverage what’s already in place. In previous times, we may not have looked at those capabilities because we want to be in control of our own destiny, but now we’re in a world where we don’t have a choice … I don’t know that we’ve always held DISA in the eye of being a good partner to us in terms of the capabilities that they provide, so that’s a relationship that we’re going to need to evolve and mature. But whether it’s the unified capabilities piece, the joint piece, the mobility piece, those are all areas where we’re not going to be able to afford to be redundant in terms of the dollars that we spend.”

As part of the NGEN recompetition, the Navy plans to split its current contract into several segments. The largest, for end-user hardware and service management, integration and transport are expected to be awarded in the first and second quarter of fiscal 2019, respectively. Another, for cloud computing services, is expected by the fourth quarter of 2018.

The Navy also plans to use the upcoming contract to begin building more commonality between its mostly-continental U.S. NMCI network and the overseas shore networks known as ONE-NET, and eventually “converge” those networks into a single, relatively seamless enterprise.

“But we’re not going to make ONE-NET totally like [today’s] NMCI, because there are a number of things that we have on ONE-NET that we need to be able to fold into NMCI,” McNeal said. “So how do we get the best of both worlds? If you talk to the operational commanders out in theater, they want to be able to make the changes they need to support the day to day mission. So convergence ultimately means that we will have the benefit of those operational processes and tools combined with the mature vendor management that we have on the CONUS side to deliver the best future state network that we can.”

Read more of the DoD Reporter’s Notebook.