US defense department IT managers describe latest assault on complex and siloed IT systems

US defense department IT managers deploy SOA methodologies to tackle funding, establishing user dialog, federation, quicker turnarounds

A vexing issue that comes along with service orientation is figuring out who will fund the services being shared across the enterprise. Things get even more interesting in really large organizations with lots of multiple business lines. So you can imagine the complexity of service funding in something as large and complicated as, say, the US Department of Defense.

Funding, establishing user dialog, federation, quicker turnarounds are latest challenges for DoD

Speaking a a recent roundtable on government SOA implementations, Dan Risacher, staff member with the CIO's office at the Department of Defense (DoD), says DoD is bullish on SOA, and is undertaking serious efforts to service orient its multiple systems. However, one of the greatest challenges is deciding how various services get funded, Risacher says. "In the defense department, we have a tiered structure -- very high-level DoD and military departments underneath that. One of the particular challenges with SOA within an enterprise environment, whether that be a federal agency or business, you have different business units each providing their own services. Often the chargeback and the incentive models are the greatest difficulties. We're struggling with that."

The roundtable, hosted by Dave Chesebrough, president of the Association for Enterprise Information (AFEI), also included Matthew Swartz, branch head of Enterprise Initiatives for the US Navy, and Mike Darretta, JBoss solutions architect for Red Hat, and covered issues such as funding, integration, and paybacks.

Risacher said DoD formulated and published its SOA strategy in May 2007. The goals of the effort are to "get people to provide services on the network, make sure that those services are visible, accessible and understandable to other users, incentivize people to use them, improvise and use them, and figure out how to manage them from a network operations standpoint as well as a governance standpoint."

There is a centrally funded model for SOA-based services that exists within the intelligence community, but Risacher says it may be a difficult model for DoD to follow. "The problem is lots of people use a service, and that makes the cost go up -- but doesn't provide any additional resources and revenues to the organization providing that service."

Overall, however, a service-oriented approach is helping DoD speed up the application development and deployment process, and better target functionality where it is needed. "We have a concept we call 'communities of interest,' in which we get groups of related users together who need those capabilities to actually help define what do the services need to be," Risacher says. "We don't want to have to wait and figure out in great detail what those services are before we start providing them. But having that dialog enables us to provide services that are actually responsive to what people need."

The US Navy is also taking an enterprise view of its information technology, according to Matt Swartz.  The availability of the Navy Enterprise Portal, along with the Navy Enterprise Information System (NEIS)  is seen as a key "initial tactical step towards enabling SOA-type services or the ability for our users in the Navy to access enterprise services." The various systems and portals are being integrated and federated through an enterprise service bus, he says. "We see this as one day potentially being an enterprise service bus for other capabilities or enterprise SOA services across the Navy, and ultimately connect and federate with other DoD services" he adds.

These capabilities are now delivered via two platforms -- Oracle Fusion middleware for NEIS and Microsoft SharePoint for the portal, Swartz elaborates. "We belive that the portal environment will allow us to bring distributed applications together, and also enable information sharing that not currently available to the sailor or the warfighter in these distributed environments."

For the defense department, SOA has been an incremental journey, versus a huge sweep of its technology landscape, says Risacher. "We're focusing on things that are scalable, cost effective. How do I do things in a spiral kind of capability...  where I'm fielding new capabilities as I go along -- rather than trying to take a big-bang waterfall type of approach,  trying to figure it out all up front in the requirements phase."

There is enormous cost-savings potential as well, especially from an integration standpoint, he added. "For large DoD systems, we often find that each connection costs $1 million a year to maintain --  that's not an exaggeration. When I have to go out pay one big defense integrator and some other second defense integrator to make their systems talk to each other -- and inevitably something changes either in the interconnect or the data standards change -- it ends up being very expensive to have a whole lot of those links. So I'm trying to get that down to where we have a much smaller set of interfaces, rather than a very large set of interconnections."

The name of the game is faster turnaround of IT capabilities, Risacher continued. "We're trying to influence acquisition strategy needs to focus on smaller and shorter deliverables, so we can task as we learn, reduce risks, and get those capabilities out faster. We're focusing on standards and open architecture, and how to share some IT resources. It's a big, difficult shift for an organization as large as defense department."

It's interesting to see how a large, complex organization such as DoD is wrestling with many the same issues -- and sees the same kinds of opportunities as smaller, commercial organizations. As DoD and other federal agencies work through some of the issues around service orientation -- such as governance, funding, federation, and security -- there will be some best practices emerging for private businesses as well.