This article was first published in the Spring 2015 issue of OnWindows
Defence forces vary across the world, but they share a key requirement: to ensure efficient, secure data management and communication with their own operatives and the agencies they work with.
“Defence forces across the world are at various stages of IT maturity,” says Colonel (ret.) D.A. Harris, industry managing director for Defense, Worldwide Public Sector at Microsoft. “Some rely heavily on manual processes, with just one or two computers at headquarters and little or no internet access, while others have extensive and sophisticated technology networks – but for all of them, technology is an important enabler.”
Defence and government agencies around the world rely on Microsoft and its extensive partner network to optimise that technology and provide the key capabilities to collect, process, store, display, disseminate and protect growing volumes of data from an increasing number of sources.
“Today’s information technology is being driven by the cloud and by rapid growth in the number and types of endpoint devices accessing it,” says Jennifer Byrne, chief security officer, Worldwide Public Sector at Microsoft. “Security is a fundamental part of this evolution. It’s a global concern, and a responsibility that is shared by the developers and operators of the infrastructure, architecture, and systems that make up our IT ecosystem.”
“The cloud is getting more important in today’s military environment because there is a huge increase in the amount of sensory data provided by military equipment,” says Harold Vermanen, business director NATO for Microsoft. “Coalition operations worldwide are using an increasing number of sensor-carrying solutions, from AWACS (airborne early warning and control) planes, satellites and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) to the latest F35 Joint Strike Fighter. Managing that amount of data efficiently is currently like drinking from the fire hose as it would demand a huge investment in existing infrastructures. But it can be quickly uploaded, stored in a secure way and efficiently managed in the cloud. Instead of waiting for the equipment with the data to land so the data can be uploaded, a secure cloud connection can enable immediate access and faster analysis of sensor data anywhere there is internet access – and that’s a big advantage for operations.”
Microsoft is a partner in helping government and defence organisations to move towards the cloud, so they can harness the analytic capabilities and achieve the savings the cloud has to offer while ensuring that data is protected. “At Microsoft we’re very conscious of a need to operationalise a data strategy and adopt a data governance framework to understand what can move to the cloud, what needs to be kept on-site, and what techniques might be employed to safeguard data in compliance with policy for the categories between public data and national security data,” says Barbara Perry, director of business operations and strategy, Worldwide Public Sector Services, Microsoft. “We look at where we can use techniques such as encryption, masking or anonymisation to move additional data safely into a cloud environment. As we go along that journey, our understanding of the data and of the classifications of data has enabled our customers to unlock the value of their data using cloud based services that address emerging capabilities such as the internet of things and machine learning, while ensuring that they are protecting the data at the required level.”
Those tools are delivering the capacity, flexibility and security to enable operatives to make faster, better-informed decisions, in the garrison and the field. “Nothing will jump out at you from a spreadsheet,” says Harris. “You need to display information in a way that means something – to create a common operation picture as a basis for actions. If you can paint a geospatial picture, everybody can see what’s happening in relation to the geography. In addition, you can do temporal analysis to pick up any patterns occurring in the information you’re gathering.”
“Information comes from an overview of your data, and the way that data is processed can make all the difference,” agrees Vermanen. “Today’s technologies are enabling new, more efficient ways to analyse that data, by applying it to a model that defines the information we need, rather than looking at the data to see what it tells us. For example, one of our partners is working with air forces, navies and other organisations to build models that can provide a total overview of availability for, say, a plane or a fighter pilot. Once you have that, you have the availability and the readiness of a whole squadron and if you have the squadrons, you have an overview of the whole air force.”
Actionable intelligence like this has a tremendous value – and it needs to reach the people who can use it as quickly as possible, wherever they are. Defence operations increasingly involve a network of government departments and agencies as well as military units, and this creates an increasingly complex command and control environment.
“There is a huge requirement to operate in a joint environment with different militaries and with non-military organisations and agencies,” explains Harris. “All those organisations need to interact with each other, but they often come with their own command and control systems, networks, software and hardware, making it difficult to pass information between the networks. This was the situation faced by commanders of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, who identified a need for a common ISAF net that would allow communication between the individual networks. The resulting Afghan Mission Network provided that platform, enabling integration and interoperability between NATO and national systems.”
“Commanders need to be networked with other forces, which means having identity management and a global address list for the multinational forces and agencies they’re commanding and operating with,” says Jamie Wylly, general manager, Public Safety and National Security, Microsoft Worldwide Public Sector. “E-mail and chat are essential, as well as voice over internet protocol (IP), radio over IP, which enables communication with someone on a hand-held radio from any other device, and video teleconferencing over IP.”
Microsoft’s Lync unified communications (UC) platform is delivering unique capabilities to provide secure, instant and comprehensive communication for defence customers. “We can integrate video-providing weapon systems into this full UC capability,” says Wylly. “So if you have an unmanned aerial vehicle or a drone taking video, you can give that system an identity and call it up with a click of the mouse to see what it’s looking at and manage the video. That gives battlefield commanders great flexibility to view more intelligence-gathering systems and to share that video with the people who need to see it – in real time, fully encrypted, protected and secure.”
Mobility is also key to gathering and sharing vital information, in the field as well as at the command post. “Tablet usage in tactical environments is really taking off now,” says Vermanen. “From a management and security perspective, Windows tablets are equal to a laptop. There is a full range of tablets available, from the specialised eight-inch tablets used by jet fighter pilots to the one we recently announced with Dell, which is secured up to secret level.”
“Being able to get information from the edge, from the people on the street or deployed in a remote location, and being able to process that information quickly so it becomes actionable intelligence, is really important,” says Perry. “Just as important is the ability to get information from the central command and control out to the people on the frontline. We’re really flattening the command and control hierarchy with mobile platforms that can access and transmit even large-scale information very quickly, and we have the data analysis tools to process and integrate that information and then disseminate it back out.”
By enabling efficiencies in data analytics and communications, these technologies address another key focus for governments and defence agencies: productivity. This could be a need to do more with fewer resources following cuts, or to manage growing volumes of data and sophisticated information gathering more efficiently. “All of this drives a need to become more productive, streamline your operations and do more with less,” says Harris. “And that happens by leveraging technology.”
Customers have heterogeneous environments. They want a flexible cloud implementation and they want to build on their existing technology investment. Cross-platform capabilities play a key role in helping to leverage existing technology investments, thus requiring support for Android, iOS and other devices. “Microsoft’s new, more open approach gives our customers the ability to work across platforms and is providing ever more capability to reach everyone in the gathering and dissemination of information,” says Perry. “In addition, many open source platforms such as Linux can be hosted within the Microsoft environment, and we can run legacy enterprise workloads on Azure.”
New capabilities also mean more productive large-scale data consolidation and intelligence analysis. “Ultimately, we’re delivering the ability for our defence customers to find and access the content they need in a way that is encrypted and secure, and that they can control,” says Wylly. “There’s so much information being gathered now that it can be difficult to find the information you want, and productivity gains can be achieved simply by making people to find and access the content they need. The Microsoft productivity platform has great search capabilities to enable that, and with machine learning we’re now able to create an environment where the system learns how you work and who you’re working with, so it can offer up decisions for you. For example, our Delve tool will alert users to an updated document that relates to their work. It’s pushing productivity to the cutting edge where the system is helping you instead of overwhelming you with information.”
Ultimately, improving defence operation capabilities means optimising data management and communication in both garrison and field environments, creating a standardised network that enables seamless communication between agencies and individuals. In this endeavour, Microsoft is a trusted partner for defence agencies and governments around the world.
“In many cases, the network provides a better picture of what’s going on in the field than you’d see from the front,” says Harris. “Leveraging the technology in that network enables commanders to make better-informed decisions. So the network is the weapon system – it drives the employment of weapon systems to create a specific lethal or non-lethal effect on a target. It’s critical, and we need to standardise command centre networks so everybody can move seamlessly from one operational centre to another, equipped with a common work environment and the ability to communicate across the area of operation.”
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