Everything Old is New Again... (Actually, It's Just Old)

Barry Barlow, SVP & CTO, Vencore
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Barry Barlow, SVP & CTO, Vencore

Barry Barlow, SVP & CTO, Vencore

In 2000, after joining the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, now the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, I was tasked with modernizing the current analytic environment as my first assignment. This environment had previously been transformed from one using classic electronic light tables and a film-based production system to a largely digital architecture predicated on the same class of workstations used by Hollywood to create high-end special effects graphics. What steps could the government possibly take that would have been more innovative or cutting-edge than the technology used by those whose business is about allowing us to see and imagine worlds and events we’ve never seen, or to visually experience not just events, but the intent and emotion behind them? As I thought about that challenge, I realized that perhaps the comparison was flawed. Since our goal was to depict what had already happened, not imagine a future that had not yet occurred, we should instead accept, even embrace, the fact that the commercial market was driving and would continue to drive technology at a pace that government would never match. We did not have to be on the bleeding edge of the market to meet our needs, daunting though that may have seemed, nor deal with the risks and expenses often associated with that approach. This was not a revelation unique to me.

That same year, Ash Carter wrote “Keeping the Technological Edge,” where he stated that “the Pentagon cannot carry out the offset strategy without access to a strong industrial and technology base willing to serve its needs.” Due to the trends of commercialization and globalization of technology maturation, he believed that the Department of Defense (DoD) had a strategic imperative to be the world’s “faster adapter and adopter of commercial technology into defense systems” as our opponents would have equal access to it. In 2018, we see those trends play out on a daily basis as social media has become a weapon of war, as cellular technology is today a trigger for improvised explosive devices, as the technologies of commercial surveillance create a situational awareness platform any combatant commander would have dreamed of 20 years ago. It is no surprise that in 2016, then Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter moved out on his vision, by creating the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) and housing it in Silicon Valley, rather than the more traditional Washington D.C. corridor. His objective was to make the adoption of commercial technology and non-traditional partners as easy for the Pentagon as it was for our adversaries. The barriers to DIUx success were not technical, as procurement policies and practices would need to change. To that end, a very robust “pilot acquisition process” was developed that would allow defense agencies to procure small to large capabilities, and then “sole source” the subsequent developments should the pilot prove successful, an acquisition approach that could shave years off traditional practices. DIUx was one element of the Defense Innovation Initiative (DII), a department-wide initiative to pursue innovative ways to sustain and advance the capabilities of the “force of the future.” The DII and DIUx are key to the third offset strategy that puts the competitive advantage firmly in the hands of American power projection over the coming decades.

  A firm is said to have a competitive advantage when it is implementing a value-creating strategy not simultaneously being implemented by any current or potential business or competitor  

A very tangible example of innovation in the DoD is the Commercial Solutions for Classified (CSfC) effort at a DoD Combat Support Agency, the National Security Agency. NSA introduced the CSfC program to specify alternatives in a very specific technology area. CSfC uses layered encryption implemented with commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware and software, based on open standards. This is an alternative approach to the traditionally required use of Type 1 encryption devices and wired networks, which are complex, based on custom hardware, and as a result, expensive to procure, maintain and operate. NSA has identified an Approved Products List (APL) which specifies COTS components that meet CSfC requirements and capability packages which specify configuration and operations requirements. Only NSA-approved Trusted CSfC Integrators are permitted to select products from the APL, design and integrate a solution, and obtain approval for operation of CSfC-compliant implementations. CSfC offers the means to introduce modern, familiar, end-user-devices—such as smartphones, tablets and laptops—eliminating expensive COMSEC Cryptographic Items (CCI) equipment and logistics, and the associated operational expense for cleared personnel needed for maintaining and upgrading CCI-based networks. In addition, the use of commodity hardware has lower price points and allows faster adoption of new technology, all while reducing time for network buildup, configuration, and activation—from months to a few days.

As a case in point, and to return to where we started, as I considered how best to modernize the analytic environment, I realize that relying solely on high-end commercial workstations was neither agile nor scalable. When we would have to deploy them into ruggedized environments, the environmental conditions (e.g., heat and humidity) created failure rates far outside expectations. As a result, we moved to mid-range commercial, some would even say, commodity desktops and laptops, and the results were stunningly successful. They were much more tolerant of less than ideal conditions (and after all, we should not be surprised, if you’ve been to the average college campus). Additionally, maintenance was neither as costly nor did it require as skilled of a workforce in a deployed environment. As a result, we were able to quickly and efficiently scale from hundreds to thousands of workstations for roughly the same price point, and provide support to our customers, the warfighters, wherever their mission took them, a demand side equation whose variables I had no control over.

A firm is said to have a competitive advantage when it is implementing a value-creating strategy not simultaneously being implemented by any current or potential business or competitor. Businesses that wish to be successful in a new DoD marketplace need to both understand and invest in approaches like CSfC, and DIUx, rather than fight them, as they are good for the mission and good for business. If not, then like past companies who are too focused on introducing the latest and greatest product regardless of the cost or risk, the future will not be kind. After all, innovation is not only limited to new and exciting products, especially in the new DoD marketplace. Being innovative often times means leveraging what exists, realizing that “perfect is the enemy of good enough,” and making it new again.

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