Navy Leverages Networks To Increase Efficiency

Navy Leverages Networks To Increase Efficiency

By Jon William Toigo

The Navy is weighing anchor on two projects that could set a pattern for the military's use of information networks to improve efficiency in areas such as transporting supplies and filling job openings.

A case in point is the Navy's Military Sealift Command, which provides all of the Defense Department's dry cargo transportation in peacetime. The command is leading other defense offices and agencies in the implementation of network-based electronic commerce and electronic data interchange (EDI) technology, says J. Gordon Spicer, chief of the command's Technical Integration Division's Data Management Branch in Washington.

The Pentagon, through the Defense Logistics Agency and the U.S. Transportation Command, is championing departmentwide adoption of these technologies to improve cost efficiency at every level of military operations.

Among the first to execute these directives is the Military Sealift Command, which will bring its Washington Navy Yard Electronic Commerce Center online within 60 days. It is the first of five e-commerce centers planned for the command. The others will be housed at command area headquarters in Norfolk, Va.; San Diego; Naples, Italy; and Yokohama, Japan.

All military branches are now doing EDI development work for their supply transport services. This activity is helping to boost the government market for EDI products and services from $275 million in 1997 to $508 million in 2001, according to the EDI Group in Oak Park, Ill.

The Military Sealift Command defines electronic commerce as the paperless exchange of business information using EDI, e-mail, electronic bulletin boards, electronic funds transfer and related technologies. EDI is the computer-to-computer exchange of routine business information using a defined, public, standard format.

"The implementation of application-to-application EDI reduces human error and intervention, alleviates data entry and mailing costs, and provides more accurate information, faster communications, decreased paperwork and more effective and timely decision-making," says Spicer.

The technology has a special relevance for Military Sealift Command operations, Spicer says.

"We are tasked with the mission-critical delivery of cargo to military personnel and bases worldwide. That entails the coordination of pre-positioned ships, chartered commercial ships, leased vessels and leased [cargo] spaces," he says.

"Most of our dry cargo is shipped via commercial, U.S.-registered ocean liners. It requires a great deal of coordination and paperwork to ensure that dry cargo booking, contracting and contract administration, billing and payment and other planning activities [associated with joint force deployments and exercises] proceed without interruption," he says.

In addition, the command must monitor constantly the financial impact of its plans and ensure it is getting the greatest value possible, Spicer says.

The Electronic Commerce Center will leverage the latest network and system technologies to ensure the flow of information between the Military Sealift Command and its vendors is made more efficient, he says. He also expects improvements in the accuracy and level of detail in the information to contribute to improved operational performance and better decisions.

"We expect EDI to give us more accurate and complete data with more detail than ever before," Spicer says. "This will not only make data processing more efficient and less prone to error, it also supports our enterprise data warehousing vision."

The Military Sealift Command is developing data marts to trap information from its acquisition, finance, procurement and engineering processes to begin building a data warehouse, Spicer says.

"Eventually, we hope to mine this historical data to develop insights that will help us to become even more efficient," he says.

Setting Sail With EDI

The command's first Electronic Commerce Center is the culmination of extensive systems design and testing during the past three years with its integrator, SRA International Inc. of Fairfax, Va.

The first job was to refine shore processes and processes afloat, and then assist in the design and deployment of the Electronic Commerce Center itself, according to Spicer.

SRA International has a five-year contract with the Military Sealift Command to facilitate the rollout, starting this year. The contract, valued at $18.3 million, includes installing all five centers and providing training.

The first Electronic Commerce Center system will be operated initially from SRA International facilities in Fair Lakes, Va., about 18 miles from Military Sealift Command headquarters at the Washington Navy Yard, SRA program officials say.

The system consists of a Windows NT host operating commercial off-the-shelf, EDI software ? Gentran Server from Sterling Commerce of Dublin, Ohio. The Gentran package converts X12 EDI transaction sets into information that can be processed by the command's internal systems.

The prototype system at SRA will be connected via a high-speed communications link (yet to be defined) to an Ethernet-based, TCP/IP network at command headquarters. The TCP/IP network provides connectivity between command production systems and end users.

About 50 command employees in procurement and an equal number in the contracts area will use the system to manage contracts valued at up to $100 million.

The prototype system will be replicated on site at the Washington Navy Yard and connected directly to the internal network there sometime during 1999. When that occurs, the system at SRA International and the high-speed communications link will be relegated to a backup role.

"We have been working to define the invoicing paper flows first, a process we started two years ago," says George Harley, SRA's project manager for the Military Sealift Command's EC/EDI Support Project. "We have implemented standards-based EDI transaction sets to replace the paper forms that have been passed between [the command] and its vendors until now. Our solution adheres to the ANSI X12 standard for EDI presently, but will migrate to an international standard, the United Nations Rules for Electronic Data Interchange for Administration, Commerce, and Transportation, over time."

Using the prototype Electronic Commerce Center system, SRA already has begun operational testing of EDI data flows with command vendors. Initial tests were performed with the primary ocean carriers that provide cargo transportation services under contract to the command, including Sea-Land Service, America Presidential Lines, Matson Navigation Company, Crowley Maritime Corp., Lykes Brothers Steamship Company, Totem Ocean Trailer Express and several others.

The carriers used a combination of dial-up and Web-based access to facilitate EDI test transfers, says Mary Catherine Sheftel, project technical lead for SRA.

Those carriers that used systems with EDI capabilities configured their applications to communicate directly with the Electronic Commerce Center system. Using modems, they dialed up to the Military Sealift Command's value-added network - an IBM Advantis network - and uploaded transactions to the test system.

Carriers that did not have EDI-capable systems accessed the Electronic Commerce Center system via the World Wide Web. Military Sealift Command and SRA set up a Web site, using the Gentran Web Suite, that provides fill-in-the-blank forms identical to the paper forms previously used by the command's vendors.

Once completed online by the vendor, these Web-based forms are converted into EDI format and are directed to the Electronic Commerce Center system. Upon receipt, all of the EDI transmissions, from both the value-added network and the Web, are processed for submission to the command's internal systems across the high-speed link.

The first round of tests was successful and encouraged the command to proceed with putting the Electronic Commerce Center system into operation in January 1999, says Sheftel. Additional testing remains to be completed with other command trading partners, including Mobil Oil Corp., which provides lubricants for use on naval vessels, the command's paint contractor, and even its integrator, SRA International.

"We are doing the testing now, and by the end of the year all of our invoices and other information related to SRA-MSC contracts will be handled using the [Electronic Commerce Center] and electronic data interchange," Harley says. "It is certainly a case of putting your money where your mouth is. If we weren't confident about the ECC, it would be foolish to entrust our billing to it."

By the end of fiscal 2003, the Electronic Commerce Center system will be rolled out to the four other Military Sealift Command posts.

"We are still wrestling with the deployment strategy options, but we will select the strategy that provides the greatest benefit at the best price," Spicer says.

That will be good news to military personnel stationed abroad who depend on the Military Sealift Command's efficient administration of 130-plus ships to deliver up to 12 million tons of fuel, equipment, ammunition and other critical supplies annually.

The command is leveraging networks to improve the efficiency of its cargo transport operations and the productivity of its 7,500 employees worldwide.

Via the Network

Meanwhile, another division of the Navy is leveraging networks to better match job openings with qualified candidates.

"For several years, naval personnel learned about job availability by calling a detailer or counselor and discussing options listed on a printout. Detailers were often difficult to reach, and their lists of requisitions for sailors and billets for officers were often out of date by the time a job request was processed," says Gil Bonnaure, division head within the Program Management Support Division of the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station in Washington.

In 1995, the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station launched a pilot project for a new, network-based Job Application and Selection System (JASS), featuring dial-up, Internet-based, and network-to-network access.

"The objective was to provide duty assignment career counselors with up-to-the-minute access to job listings by whatever technical means available," Bonnaure says.

Unfortunately, the type and sophistication of client systems available to counselors and detailers for use with the JASS system varied widely throughout the service. This became a design constraint that both NCTS Washington and its contractors would have to overcome.

The NCTS integrated the system itself, using off-the-shelf software from Attachmate Corp. of Bellevue, Wash., and Citrix Systems of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. At various times, the office used personnel from Tomco Systems Inc. of Oxon Hill, Md., and eight other contractors who have multiyear contracts with NCTS to assist on an as-needed basis. The project was officially rolled out earlier this month.

"We couldn't tell Fleet to buy more equipment," Bonnaure says. "We had to work with whatever the counselors had, both in terms of client hardware and network connectivity."

After some research and testing, Bonnaure elected to develop the system in a three-tier architecture, leveraging the ubiquitous client support and efficient bandwidth utilization afforded by WinFrame, a Citrix product.

The first tier consisted of a Sun Microsystems Sparc 2000 server. The server hosts a back-end database, built on Oracle 7.3, which contains updated job information via a link to an IBM mainframe at the Defense MegaCenter in Chambersburg, Pa. The first-tier database is accessed by a second tier of five Windows NT servers running Citrix WinFrame for multiuser support and the JASS application.

"With this configuration, virtually any desktop system could access the second tier using a specially developed thin-client application," Bonnaure says. "Using the WinFrame product enabled us to centralize application software on the second-tier server and to extend just the operating interface to whatever client device that is being used by a job counselor."

The thin-client architecture of the JASS system eliminated the need to upgrade PCs and other desktop systems used in counselor offices. Another feature of the architecture, specifically its use of the Intelligent Communications Architecture networking protocol from Citrix, extended the accessibility of the application by supporting virtually any network or dial-up connection, regardless of connection speed and bandwidth capability.

"Initially, we made the application available only through internal network interfaces. We have a mixture of IPX, IP and NetBUI networks throughout the Navy. Nevertheless, we were able to deliver the application interface to the client desktop without difficulty using" the Intelligent Communications Architecture, Bonnaure says. "Later we added dial-up and Internet access to the second-tier application servers.

"We also wrote a special offline application and added two FTP servers for use by counselors who cannot maintain a durable network or dial-up connection," Bonnaure says. "For example, a counselor at sea can use this application to obtain job information in a quick FTP download. Then they can prepare application forms and send them back to us in a quick FTP upload."

Based on successful testing, Bonnaure says the Navy has authorized full JASS deployment. Today, between 50 percent and 75 percent of the Navy's counselors are using the system, making for about 2,300 users.

"Counselors can now see all jobs, which makes the application process quicker," he says. "New jobs are announced about every two weeks. Now sailors can apply for the job soon after it is announced while it is still available."

According to Bonnaure, the benefits of the thin client solution, including support for diverse clients and communications methods, simplified desktop installation and centralized application administration and maintenance, are encouraging other projects with a thin client bent. The Naval Observatory, for example, is deploying such a solution for its Fleet Modification and Improvement System to track upgrades at shipyards worldwide.

"We are working a lot with thin- client implementations using Microsoft's NT Server Terminal Server Edition," which incorporates WinFrame technology from Citrix, says Bonnaure. "We can quickly put together a three-tier solution and extend it out to users on existing network facilities or through the Web and dial-up. Ease of access and network-based delivery of applications even to Unix is very important."

As in the case of the Military Sealift Command's Electronic Commerce Center systems, NCTS Washington is discovering that networks are key to improving productivity while decreasing expense in naval operations.

Combined with EDI and thin client technologies, the outlook for network-based applications within the Navy appears to be smooth sailing.

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