I think the public generally thinks of the Department of Defense as a monolith (often referred to as the Pentagon). The fact is that the DoD is remarkably fractured with the various agencies and Services often headed in very different directions. Over the years compatibility issues between service weapons and communications systems have surfaced and despite efforts to eliminate such challenges they persist. Mark A. Kellner, writing in the Defense News, reports that Service Internet Web portals fall into the persistent challenge category but that the Department is trying to do something about that [“DoD Aims to Harmonize Service Portals,” 29 January 2007]. Kellner reports, however, that these efforts may be neither short-term nor easily obtained.
“The U.S. armed forces’ internal Web portals may yet merge into ‘a contract with a big enough space for all of us,’ said the Air Force’s chief information officer, Lt. Gen. Michael Peterson — but not for a while. Each service maintains its own portal, designed to be an easy-to-navigate front end to help troops guide their careers, program managers run their acquisition efforts, families cope with the demands of military life, and more. Some 875,000 users are registered at the Air Force’s portal, according to portal operator Lockheed Martin. The 1.8 million-user Army Knowledge Online (AKO) portal is to morph into a services-spanning Defense Knowledge Online (DKO) according to a 2006 Defense Information Systems Agency decision. But AKO is somewhat incompatible with the Air Force’s Global Combat Support System-Air Force (GCSS-AF), Peterson said. As a result, a merger may not be imminent. Media reports and a source within the portal development community also suggest the Navy may not immediately sign on to a single portal as well.”
Kellner indicates that windows of opportunity open each time a contract to run a Service portal comes up for bid and several current contracts expire over the next few years. General Peterson suggests the best way to harmonize the portals is to move to a service-oriented architecture.
“Peterson spoke enthusiastically about building portals on a Service-Oriented Architecture. Almost his first words [at a recent] luncheon address were a comment that his current reading is the 2006 book ‘SOA for Dummies.’ ‘The traditional way you would build a piece of software is you would build it to a spec and hard-code that,’ said the book’s co-author, Judith Hurwitz. ‘Now the problem with that — that [Peterson is] exposing — is when you need to change and integrate with other things, you’re sort of stuck because everything has been custom-coded. With SOA, you architect it in a different way. You have a series of services, a set of business components, that you link together with standard interfaces, so that when you have to change the instance that you’ve built, you want it to connect to different things, to do different functions, you’re relinking to different services.'”
I am a big supporter of service-oriented architectures. They provide amazing flexibility and adaptability, especially for organizations as large as the Department of Defense. As Kellner noted, however, not everyone is convinced that a single DoD portal for the Services is either necessary or wise.
“John Weiler, co-founder and executive director of the Interoperability Clearinghouse, Alexandria, Va., said it’s necessary to answer the question of what problems having a single portal solves: ‘Why is a single portal necessary’ for the service branches, he asked. Other organizations, such as automaker General Motors, have separate portals for parts suppliers, manufacturers, retail outlets and customers, Weiler noted. ‘You don’t want to put them all in one portal,’ he explained.”
You never know when you might want or have to share information and that realization may come too late to do anything about it unless you have an architecture in place that is inherently adaptable. Discussions of portals aside, it makes sense for the DoD to move to a service-oriented architecture so that the right relationships can be worked out and the proper connections made in the most effective and cost efficient manner.