Taking Command

By David F. Carr  |  Posted 2004-04-04 Print this article Print

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps hired EDS to build a single, secure network, but unexpected complexities have left the project at sea.

Taking Command

Complaints notwithstanding, Capt. Chris Christopher maintains the project is a success. A reservist voluntarily recalled to service to help with management of the Navy's Year 2000 remediation, Christopher now serves as staff director of the NMCI project office.

"Without NMCI, we never would have got our arms around our application portfolio, which was totally unmanaged," Christopher says. For decades, anyone with procurement authority could buy computers and software or hire developers to create custom applications. Security policies were widely ignored.

The Navy recognized that one of the challenges of NMCI would be replacing, consolidating or eliminating those legacy applications, since only officially sanctioned software would be installed on the new computers. Based on an application inventory performed for the Navy's project to eliminate Year 2000 bugs, they thought they might have to deal with perhaps 9,000 of them. But NMCI turned up about 100,000.

So far, 3,000 applications have been approved for use with NMCI. Another 24,000 applications have been "quarantined," meaning they can't be run on NMCI computers or connected to the new network, but will continue to be used until they can be replaced or retired. For example, NMCI won't allow applications that rely on NetBIOS, a protocol Windows networks use for file sharing, because it provides the potential for access to the desktop computer's hard drive.

Barry Cason, a civilian employee for the Marine Corps who works at a supply warehouse in Albany, Ga., says he ran into trouble when NMCI technicians refused to load an essential piece of software onto his new computer. "So that wasn't so good," he says.

Although he has suffered some system crashes using his new Windows 2000 computer to run the program, which was written for the older Microsoft Disk Operating System, he needs it to run the freight carousel at the warehouse. Since getting approval to continue using the software, Cason says he has been basically satisfied with the new network.

Network-security experts tend to be the biggest fans of the Navy intranet. Richard C. McElroy became convinced in 2002, while working as a security consultant on the project. His assignment included network-penetration testing and security analysis of products deployed on NMCI.

Another problem: ranking officers sometimes ordered security restrictions loosened for their own convenience—to get access to streaming video that otherwise would have been blocked by a firewall, for example. "Now it's clear that these are the standards, and everyone has to adhere," McElroy says.

Despite its emphasis on security, in August NMCI suffered a day's worth of disruption from Welchia, one of the network-clogging computer worms making the rounds last summer. But in January, NMCI officials say they met the MyDoom.A worm with the sort of organizationwide response that would have been impossible previously. On Jan. 26, the day antivirus software vendor Symantec notified them of the threat, they reconfigured e-mail servers to block file attachments associated with the attack, and then distributed an antivirus update as soon as it was available.

NMCI holds out the promise of better training for Navy technicians. For example, Ernest Bell, a Navy petty officer first class and information-technology specialist, is getting Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer training while serving a shore rotation on the network operations center's help desk at the Navy base in Norfolk, Va. He says that experience will prove valuable when he gets his next shipboard assignment.

When fielding calls from frustrated users, he's careful to keep his cool. "You don't want to have the same attitude that they have," he says. "Because they're not mad at me, right?" Many complaints involve simple oversights, such as users not being given the access to shared network directories, Bell says.

The NMCI project is "both good and bad," says Will Harper, a former naval officer who teaches Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer courses for the Navy. He agrees NMCI is improving security. Users who are complaining are mostly mad about being denied network privileges they shouldn't have had in the first place, he says.

On the other hand, Harper faults the Navy for hiring the lowest bidder and EDS for low-balling its bid. As a result, Harper says, EDS is "scrambling to meet the requirements as best they can, given their cost overruns and the fact that they're on a fixed-price contract."

Full speed ahead seems to have turned out not to be the right strategy for the project. Now, Navy officials say they will work with EDS to steer a better course and make sure the network reaches its destination.

David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.

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