What's Next in IT - And How Do We Get There?

Published, January 10, 2014

HalvorsenThe current budget realities faced by the Department of the Navy have created for us a "new normal." And though we still work diligently to find more ways to save money, we also must adjust to the new normal by asking, "Now what?" How do we get from a mindset of "cutting back to save money" to using the cutting edge of technology to transform our business processes?

Future resources may continue to dwindle, but mission requirements will not. The DON will continue to serve the nation in the most effective and cost-efficient manner possible. For us, that means taking a long, hard look at the next "game changers" - those technologies that revolutionize the way we do business.

Already, those technologies are having an impact on the world around us. Military drones, nanotechnology, software-based infrastructure, bio-modifications and energy weapons and 3D printing all have enormous implications for our military. And, cloud computing and mobile technology are examples of the kind of quantum leaps our computing and communications capabilities have taken over the last few years.

So, now what?

Additive manufacturing (aka, "3D printing")

Three-dimensional printing is one of the most revolutionary technological developments of the last century. "Printing" is a bit of a misnomer. Known as "additive manufacturing," 3D printing makes it possible, at least theoretically, for anyone to manufacture a product. It is a process that creates parts using successive layers of material – via 3D "printing" – instead of the traditional method of cutting and drilling away material such as metal or plastic. Each layer is combined with others until the product is created. This method reduces the amount of waste, which reduces the amount of need for raw materials as well as costs. For example, no longer will we cut away or machine metal from a solid block to create an auto part; instead, we will be able to create that part from a digital image. Further, these "printed" parts can often be made lighter than parts forged from metals or other dense materials, leading to fuel savings.

The ramifications of this are indeed "game-changing," as 3D printing could fundamentally reshape manufacturing and production models around the world, which in turn reshape societal and financial models. Within a few years, we could see a widespread shift in the way we manufacture things.

3D printing could substantially reduce the DON's cost of doing business. For example, what if a Navy ship at sea could produce, via 3D printing, replacement parts while underway? Or build its own servers or data centers? Or its own weapons?

It’s already happening. According to a recent issue of Electronic Military and Defense magazine, "3D printing has already given rise to laser techniques to make products, and has already shown a great deal of potential for ship and aircraft repair. These techniques are already being used by Pratt & Whitney, GE and the Canadian Navy."

Mobile, the cloud and the mobile cloud

Another "game changer" is mobile communications. Already, mobile technology has fundamentally changed the way we communicate and the nature of our communications. Individuals today have access to, literally, the world at their fingertips via smart phones. You can now do your banking, order groceries to be delivered to your house after work and buy movie tickets for tomorrow night's date – all via your phone while riding the train or bus to work. What is the military application of this kind of technology – in a world where we still primarily communicate via email and our mobile technology is five or six years out of date? How do we establish a secure, effective seamless network of devices?

The advances made in mobile technology run alongside those made in cloud computing technology, and the intersection of these two presents challenges and opportunities for the DON. Private industry – Google, Microsoft and Amazon – has made it possible, via cloud computing, for even small businesses to deploy their services globally. (Indeed, the DON has recently partnered with Amazon Web Services and placed the web portal for the Office of the Secretary of the Navy in the commercial cloud.) Smartphones and tablets and the myriad available apps enable users to access cloud-based data anytime, anywhere. In our world, where immediate data access is more often a requirement rather than a luxury, what are the implications for security? How do we, as an enterprise, establish and implement a "bring your own device" policy that satisfies both our need for data and our need for security? A private (i.e., secure) cloud already exists, but it isn't sufficient for all our needs. What is beyond the horizon for secure cloud computing? Our digital networks and infrastructures are more than the sum of their parts. They are strategic assets and must be secured accordingly. With security a paramount – and non-negotiable – element of all we do, what will the next generation of data security look like?

API – making sure the right people get the right data at the right time

Application programming interface (API) technology is also a potential game-changer. API specifies how software programs interact with each other to effectively and efficiently manage vast amounts of data. For example, ESPN captures vast amounts of information on sports events to make sports predictions and conduct analysis. This data comes from multiple sources and in multiple formats. By using an API management network, ESPN is able to process such disparate data from different sources to accomplish multiple goals, e.g., generate revenue and understand which content has value in its internal and external markets. This framework also allows third parties to interact with ESPN's data in an automated, well-defined, and routinely updated fashion. How would API work for the DON? It would, for example, enable an unmanned drone builder to provide sensor capability data to a third party without requiring the Navy to provide its data or processes for analyzing that data.

How do we get there?

Taking advantage of these game-changers doesn't come easily or automatically. It requires a highly educated, well-trained workforce – and opportunities for that workforce. The DON recognizes that fact. One of our biggest challenges in the years ahead is developing a way to train, educate, and, yes, retain, our cyberspace/IT workforce, including civilians. We've already taken steps with training by establishing policy for cyberspace/IT workforce continuous learning, and we will continue to look for solutions that work. These are only first steps, but important ones to take on a journey that will move quickly, rather than slowly.

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