Keeping IT working, even through a mortar attack

Most of us will never experience life on the front lines. But here is a quick look at two guys that not only experience the front lines, they do it while keeping a network comprised of multiple levels of complexity up and running no matter what. It will make you think twice before complaining about your network infrastructure.

We have had soldiers on the front lines for so long that it has almost become commonplace. We don't give much thought to what it takes to put an Army on the ground, and we certainly have little clue what it takes to support that Army — unless, of course, you have been there, done that. And I will bet that most of us never really consider any of that from an IT perspective.

Yes, I said IT. There is a whole lot of technology out there, and it isn't all contained in the latest tank or helicopter. We may not think of it, but there is a network out there, and it takes some real imagination coupled with a strong skill set to keep it working.

I'll link you to the article that came out this morning in ComputerWorld online. It is a really good look at a couple of Army and Air Force teams stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq whose purpose in life is to maintain the network. Believe me, I will be reading this before I whine about another support assignment. It should be prominently filed under the heading "And I thought I had it bad!" But what you read in this article is that the guys on the ground there are seeing the challenge as just another challenge. Nothing major.

Can you imagine describing your average workday like this?

Dedham: Our days start at about 5:30 in the morning and end around 11 or 12 at night. That sounds kind of extreme, but that's what it takes to operate in that austere environment. It always starts off with a quick update brief from my network personnel on the status of my network - what different nodes across the country are down and what we're doing about it.

From there, it's just a series of events - meetings, working groups, trips, all interrupted of course by a daily crisis, from small ones like the commanding general's phone doesn't work to big ones like an entire combat operating base isn't connected anymore because of a major outage.

Fielden: It's very similar here at Balad. My alarm goes off at 5:45. I kick the day off with a morning stand-up, when I call in my flight commanders and we review anything that happened the previous night and then establish priorities for the day. We also do personnel accounting, to make sure everybody is where they ought to be.

And then we proceed with the daily task of providing the best comm service we possibly can, all the while dodging and ducking mortar attacks and rocket attacks. The duty day typically for me ends around 2230 or 2300 hours, assuming there's no crisis ongoing at that particular time. I call it "firefighting" - there are no two days alike out here, I've noticed.

How about this architecture?

Bullock: What these guys do is different from most commercial networks, because while most of them just have to provide one consolidated LAN or WAN, we actually have to provide multiple distinct networks. One is SIPRNet, which stands for Secret Internet Protocol - it's a classified network. We also provide NIPRNet, which is the Not Secret Internet Protocol.

And in many cases, we provide a third network, JWICS [Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System], which is a top-secret network. Unclassified, secret, top secret: three different networks that don't touch each other at all, and they're all provided in many cases at very austere, very small locations.
Fielden: For Balad, that's very true. We're providing all three of those networks. At other bases, we're providing SIPRNet and NIPRNet connectivity, and at some of our still-smaller forward operating locations, we're just providing NIPRNet.
Dedham: In Afghanistan, we use virtual LANs to distribute our networks. There are seven different networks we provide: the three they mentioned, plus plain old Internet; and then we have two NATO classified networks, and finally a bigger secure coalition network for countries outside of NATO. So seven different networks that we're running, with the associated information systems: e-mail, databases, and so on.

Fielden is Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Don Fielden, currently deployed to Balad Air Base in Iraq. Dedham is Army Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Dedham, just back from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Bullock is Air Force Colonel Harold Bullock of United States Central Command in Tampa, FL. Wills is Army Lieutenant Colonel David Wills, also serving at U.S. Central Command.

This article is a great read and certainly helps us all to gain a new perspective. Consider this:

Wills: The individuals who work for Don [Fielden] and Pat [Dedham] are truly innovative. I've seen people from Microsoft or Cisco come in and say, "It's not supposed to do that." Well, it's not supposed to, but it does, because the men and women out there aren't constrained, and they make things happen.

Next time you are tempted to think that support is not so big a deal, think of these guys. They are truly giving user support a whole new meaning.

What are some of your challenges in providing support? And what are the things you have done to overcome those challenges?

ComputerWorld- Extreme IT: Battling Dust, Heat, and Bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq

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