Pack it up and go anywhere

NMCI's 'network in a box' allows troops to set up offices in the field

The 6.3 magnitude earthquake that struck
Indonesia in 2006 left more than 5,800 people
dead and created a massive humanitarian
crisis.

The Marine Corps was among the organizations
deployed to provide medical aid,
equipment and supplies.

The governments of disaster-stricken
countries usually accept international help
but want aid groups to leave as soon as the
crisis is over. So traveling light is a major
goal for Marine Corps officials, said Lt. Col.
Richard Leino, assistant chief of staff at the
G6 Marine Logistics Group.

"You have countries that want your help,
but they don't really want you to send too
much stuff in," Leino said. "They don't want
a lot of military vehicles on the road and that
sort of thing, so you have to keep your footprint
really small."

Traveling light is important, but so is giving
troops access to e-mail, the Web and
applications available through the Navy
Marine Corps Intranet. With that in mind,
Marine officials began a project to deliver
NMCI to the field without needing to truck
in servers and other infrastructure.

Working with EDS Corp., the corps developed
the Deployed Site Transport Boundary,
nicknamed NMCI in a box, which gives
Marines access to NMCI, optimizes bandwidth
and is small enough to be carried by
two men.

JUST LIKE HOME

Although designed for a specific purpose, the
system is part of a growing trend among the
armed forces and first responders. They want
network connectivity in remote locations,
and they want that connectivity to provide
an office-like experience.

Troops in a remote village
want their e-mail system
to feel the way it does on
a permanent base.

For example, AT&T
Government Solutions
recently won a
$16.5 million contract
with the Air Force
Services Agency (AFSA)
to build an IP virtual private
network that will enable
the Air Force to integrate 107 locations
in the United States and abroad into a
single, streamlined IP communications platform.
The system will help AFSA securely
process millions of dollars in nonappropriated
funds that are moved through its banking
system daily.

Pressure to deliver consistent, secure
applications anywhere in the world is
increasing, industry sources say.

For example, NMCI in a box comes in an
11U rack that is usually about 30 inches high.
"The specific configuration will support 48
users, but you can add a couple of switches
and scale that up to somewhere in the neighborhood
of 200 users," said Ron Bowlin,
EDS' manager of NMCI Enterprise
Engineering Services.

The kit consists of a router, VPN device,
bandwidth optimizer from Riverbed
Technology, access layer switch and uninterruptible
power supply. It also has an option
to set up a virtual local-area network that
can include printers.

"It essentially becomes an e-mail, file
transfer service and Web access connection
back to NMCI," Bowlin said.

Previously, when Marine
Corps units were deployed
to remote areas, they
tried to access those
services without such a
device. They tried to
use Microsoft Outlook
Web Access for unclassified
e-mail, but that
didn't work. They also
found that the Marines'
VPN, the Broadband
Unclassified Remote Access
Service (BURAS), didn't work during a
humanitarian mission.

A policy issue prevented them from using
BURAS via tactical circuits. That was fixed,
but then new problems appeared during a
2006 mission to South Korea.

"We were able to set BURAS up successfully,"
Leino said. "But what we found out is
that when you started to have more than?a
few users trying to use it, it actually clobbered
your network."

Unlike office conditions where bandwidth
is not an issue, the Marines generally rely
during deployments on a satellite connection
for voice, video and data. Twenty people trying
to use a megabit or two of connectivitydid not work.
So EDS and the Marines began developing
a device to provide a single VPN connection
that could be accessed by multiple users. It
allows them to minimize the amount of overhead
that a multiple VPN connection would
need.

The Steelhead appliance
also helps deal
with the low bandwidth.
Steelhead provides
wide-area network optimization,
application
acceleration, and wide-area file and application
services. Its data reduction, WAN optimization
and application-level latency optimizations
help speed applications.

If one user downloads a file, other NMCI
in a box users can access the file locally.
Avoiding multiple downloads optimizes the
limited bandwidth.

As a result, the system can significantly
enhance performance when users surf sites
such as CNN, Leino said. "If everybody is
surfing the same site, you download the Web
page once, and?it's available. The only
things downloaded are any changes that
occur from the last time something was
downloaded."

Avoiding redundant downloads is important
to the Marines because they collaborate
using Microsoft Office SharePoint, and
repeatedly downloading those kinds of files
is highly inefficient.

ENORMOUS POTENTIAL

The system was recently used in Thailand
during the Cobra Gold exercises, regularly
scheduled joint maneuvers to strengthen the
Royal Thai Armed Forces' ability to defend
Thailand or respond to regional situations.
The potential for other government agencies
to use this technology is huge, Leino
said.

"One of the strengths of this is not just
that it is extending
NMCI, it is also the
pattern-caching capability
from Steelhead,"
Leino said. "It is not
just the military that
has a need sometimes to connect remote
sites. You don't want to have to set up a server
on the other end every time you want to
provide services to somebody remotely. With
this, it is almost like having a LAN capability
even though you're using a satellite."

Doug Beizer (dbeizer@1105govinfo.com) is a staff
writer at Washington Technology.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Washington Technology.

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