‘Wrong trajectory’ in mobile strategy stifles Marines’ BYOD ambitions

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The Marine Corps has been talking about implementing a bring-your-own-device strategy for more than three years as one way to cut costs and speed up its adoption of commercial smartphone technology. But the service’s chief information officer says the goal is still a long way off, and the Marines are still struggling to bring aboard the most modern mobile devices, even when they’re owned by the government.

As of 2014, the corps had become the first military service to start working on beta tests to let service members use their own devices for government business, hoping at that time that they would prove the case for a broader overhaul of the Defense Department’s approach to mobility. But those efforts still have not led to anything resembling wide-scale adoption of a BYOD policy.

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Brig. Gen. Dennis Crall, the Marines’ CIO and director for command, control communications and computers, said his service still aspires to a BYOD approach to mobility, and previous efforts have not moved quickly enough.

“In fact, I’ll tell you right now, our whole mobile device strategy is not good,” he said earlier this month at the annual MILCOM conference in Baltimore. “I don’t find we’re moving at the pace we need to, I don’t think I’m on the right trajectory, and we need to make a significant change.”

He did not specify the precise changes he intends to make, but said that he would have expected that the Marines, by now, would have at least been able to move its workforce to government-owned Android and Apple smartphones and tablets. Instead, the service remains heavily reliant on the time-tested Blackberry.

“We’re just too slow,” he said. “We’re too slow for a host of reasons. The testing has taken too long, and where we’re hurting the most on the BYOD front is in our recruiting force. They don’t want my government-furnished equipment, they want to use their equipment. They need a highly mobile configuration, an application that helps them with selling, and they need the devices that go along with it. We need a BYOD solution for that, and we’ve just struggled. I think I have the funding for it, I just have not found the right solution.”

Other components of the Defense Department have moved at least some of their employees to Android and iOS devices supported by the Defense Information Systems Agency. DISA’s Defense Mobility Unclassified Capability (DMUC) and Defense Mobility Classified Capability (DMCC) already offer tablets and phones that can operate up to the secret level, and phones that are certified for top-secret information. DISA is beginning to move those phone offerings into a suite of capabilities that it calls Mobility Enterprise Services.

But Crall said it’s not the right fit for the Marine Corps.

“I’ve got to be on a DISA enterprise email offering as well, otherwise I can’t make the two work together very well,” he said. “So I’m stuck, to be honest with you.”

And for the Marines, moving to DISA’s email offering is not in the cards, at least for now. The agency’s next iteration of enterprise email is expected to be run entirely by private cloud service providers in a forthcoming acquisition called Defense Enterprise Office Solutions (DEOS). In some ways, that approach is the opposite of the one the Marine Corps is pursuing.

To the extent the corps is moving to commercial cloud services, it wants those services hosted on military bases. The service is still gradually transitioning its portion of the formerly contractor-owned, contractor-operated Navy-Marine Corps Intranet to the government-owned, government operated Marine Corps Enterprise Network. And Crall said he wants more, not fewer Marines handling critical IT functions, particularly in tactical environments.

“What we do in garrison is easy. I’d go to enterprise email tomorrow if it didn’t leave me with one foot in the DEOS front and one foot in the USMC dot-mil front. If we’re going to make the transition, we’ve probably got to make the transition all at once,” he said. “What really concerns me is the tactical edge. When it comes to contracting that out, I want more people in green suits at that tactical edge. I want more Marines to administer it and have the security control over it so that no matter what happens, I can push that information to the right person in the right place at the right time. And it’s not just about email. We fight on chat with a collaboration tool suite that’s out there. These are warfighting tools, and I need to make sure I can find you. Right now, our Active Directory challenge is real. I have trouble putting that stack into a box and taking it when I’m forward-deployed. I’ve heard a lot of promises and I’ve had a lot of industry partners come and tell me they can tame it, but I’m not quite there yet.”

As for the Marine Corps’ move to the cloud, Crall says it’s bound up with everything else the service has to do in order to make Marines and the data they use more mobile, and that the corps is not willing to move its applications to the cloud merely as an end in itself.

“If you give me all the cloud in the world today and my applications don’t behave right, what do I have? I have a cloud where I can’t use the applications in the way I need to, because they’re not mobile-based. It’s just another intermediary waypoint,” he said. “And we have some applications right now that don’t behave in any environment, let alone the cloud. What’s the advantage if I put them in the cloud and they’re not accessible? They’re quirky, they’re clunky, they don’t work.”

Marine Corps IT leaders plan to work through some of those challenges at an upcoming tablet summit at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina.

Crall said the service has cataloged all of the applications it currently has and wants to use for mobility, and expects to emerge from the summit with a clear strategy for taming what he called a “zoo” of mobile devices that have emerged from various pilot projects through the years.

“Our investments need to include tactical processing nodes, small-signature microwave dishes, better end-user devices, and I may treat those end-user devices as disposable,” he said. “They’re consumables. I have printer cartridges that cost more than some of our tablets, and yet we’re treating them like programs of record. They’re slow to get, slow to secure, when I can buy and use them and dispose of them. That’s the kind of thinking we’re looking for.”