Information Warfare: The Navy Seeks To Get Its Mojo Back


September 12, 2010:  After a decade of effort, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, are trying to go solo on their network and PC management. For the last decade, the Department of the Navy (which contains the navy and the marines) has paid over a billion dollars a year to have EDS (and later HP, which bought EDS) to  manage the NMCI (Navy Marine Corps Intranet). It hasn't been easy. Building NMCI required connecting over 400,000 PCs into one large, and secure (all data is encrypted) Internet-like network. This was to provide high speed, hassle free communications for everyone involved. At least in theory.

By 2004, it was possible to see some results. Sort of. Building NMCI was a lot harder than expected. For one thing, the navy found that there were over 100,000 different bits of software being used on navy PCs. Some of this software was created by sailors to do some work, but the navy never really knew about this home brew stuff. At least not until they tried to get all navy PCs to communicate as a form of super-Internet. Initially, all the disruption caused by standardizing PC operating systems and software upset a lot of users. By late 2003, some 50 percent of navy PC users were unhappy with NMCI. But by early 2004, 60 percent were satisfied, and as of June, 2004, 80 percent were satisfied. However, the improvement is not all it appears to be. Users are asked to rank their satisfaction on a 1 (not) to 10 (very) scale. Anyone who comes in at 5.5 or higher, on average, is satisfied. Users don't like the idea that they have lost some control over their PC (which now has a lot of network standards to conform to), and that their computers are slower now because of all the network software.

All this pain is part of a Department of Defense effort to get all the services to be able to communicate with each other quickly, easily and at high speed via a special military Internet. But first, each service has to get all of its own people working together. That's where the navy and marines had the most problems with NMCI.

By 2006, NMCI was considered so user unfriendly that many sailors and marines were communicating via commercial email accounts, rather than use their government issued ones. This failure was been something of a dirty little secret. No sailors or marines wanted to risk their careers by going public about it. Congress found out about it anyway, and pressured the navy to make NMCI work, as soon as possible.

Some of the earliest users of PCs were sailors, who were tech savvy, and always looking for something to amuse themselves with during months at sea. Sailors brought their own PCs on board in the late 1970s, and by the early 1980s were creating their own software to help them with their work. Many officers were also geeks, and encouraged their sailors in this. But the establishment of NMCI required that only "standard" PCs be on the net. Some highly customized PCs kept using their special software, but had to stay off the NMCI. Even that was often not enough, and in four years, 8,000 programs were consolidated into 500. This standardization was more efficient, but it was wrenching for sailors who had grown up in a more permissive navy atmosphere.

Now the navy wants to get some of that entrepreneurial mojo back, and is planning to take back control, and management, of NMCI from HP. This could take five years or more, but the navy is confident it can cultivate or recruit enough qualified sailors to keep the network going, and growing.





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