Wi-Fi at the War Office
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In the big-money world of U.S. military spending on information technology, Wi-Fi is hot, hot, hot.
System vendors and integrators are scrambling for their stake in a bonanza of opportunities flowing from the massive infrastructure modernization program currently underway in the Army. As the Army upgrades its networks at bases and posts across the country, it is increasingly turning to wireless, both to take advantage of the end user productivity gains and to reduce capital costs.
In this gold rush environment, All Points Logistics, a systems integrator based in Gainesville, Georgia, scored a major strike in April when its cobbled-together secure wireless network solution won DITSCAP certification. DITSCAP stands for DoD (Department of Defense) Information Technology Security Certification and Accreditation Process.
"Without it," explains Sara Lopez, All Points' vice president of strategic systems, "you can't legally turn on a new network. So it's a pretty big deal."
Does this mean there were no Wi-Fi networks in the military before All Points' breakthrough? Not quite. Some Army buyers and most vendors simply didn't know about DITSCAP in the past, Lopez says. Plus, final Army regulations specifically relating to wireless networks were not ratified until after All Points had begun its project.
In the meantime, "renegades" implemented networks without DITSCAP authority. The responsibility for getting a network certified actually lies with the buyer, not the seller. Some vendors were installing systems and leaving their customers to deal with DITSCAP. As a result, there were a few high-profile "bumps on the road." Lopez cites one reportedly disastrous WLAN implementation at the United States Military Academy at West Point that "simply never worked."
"So now the government IT folks are much more savvy," she says. "They don't want to get anything that's not DITSCAP certified."
The All Points solution, originally developed for and in partnership with the army base at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, is the first and still the only turnkey wireless solution to receive DITSCAP certification, Lopez says. It has since been deployed at Fort Bragg (North Carolina) and Fort Gordon (Georgia), and All Points is under contract to implement a similar wireless network at Fort Sill in Oklahoma.
The solution consists of products from five different vendors:
All Points engineered the solution, integrating the various elements so they would work together seamlessly. "But the biggest value-add we brought was identifying, analyzing and interpreting the different DoD technical requirements and evaluating products against them," Lopez says. It took a year and a half from the time All Points started working on the Fort Monmouth project in November 2003 to get the certification.
In the end, she says, the five vendors used were the only ones that met the strict DOD, Army, Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) and other technical requirements. All Points considered alternatives to the selected components, but when it came down to it, they either didn't meet DITSCAP specified policies, such as compliance with Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS) 140, a government encryption standard, or couldn't pass testing by the Army's Technology Integration Center (TIC).
At the time All Points was developing its solution for Fort Monmouth, the only way to meet all the DITSCAP wireless LAN requirements was by using products from five different vendors. Since then, however, some vendors, including Aruba Networks, have introduced products that could be used to replace multiple components in the current system while still allowing the overall system to meet DITSCAP requirements.
For clients outside the military, All Points has already proposed second-generation versions of its solution that use fewer vendors, but it can't do this for military clients yet because it would mean going through the whole lengthy certification process again. The government is now pursuing "type" accreditation for the integrated solution, a kind of blanket certification that provides for substitution of evolving and new technologies and products still meeting the strict policies, as they become availablethereby leveraging the existing DITSCAP certification.
All Points' efforts in getting its turnkey Wi-Fi LAN DITSCAP certified has paid handsome dividends, Lopez says. The company is very busy right now. None of its technical staff is "sitting on the bench"—i.e. not employed in billable work. "I would say our technical staff is spending at least 50% of its time on billable wireless initiatives right now," Lopez says. She describes All Points as "a small company," but this is only by government contractor standards since its annual revenues are in the $100 million range.
All Points isn't the only one that can benefit from the DITSCAP-certified wireless system. The specifications the company helped develop actually belong to the Army and are, in effect, in the public domain. Any other systems integrator can implement a network based on the same specifications. However, Lopez hints that her company gets more than its share of the business.
"We get at least one e-mail a week [from Army customers] asking if we can help them [with a wireless project]," she says. "What we do is put them in touch with our Army counterpart. It's much more credible that it comes from the Army. And they say, 'All Points knows how to do it for you.'"
While she says her company has no problem with bidding for Army wireless business against other systems integrators using the DITSCAP-certified solution, it is clear that competition in this emerging market is intense. Lopez originally contacted Wi-Fi Planet in response to an article we ran a few months ago about iGov. The article described that company's secure wireless solution for non-military government customers. All Points apparently believed it was as deserving of the limelight or more.
Lopez is quick to point out that iGov was responsible for the failed West Point wireless deployment. She claims there is now an RFP on the street to "completely forklift out" the iGov solution at West Point and replace it with something that meets the new Army security standards—and works. Lopez also charges that iGov took publicly available documentation All Points prepared as part of the DITSCAP certification process and used it in a wireless "best practices" document of its own.
This kind of slanging probably signifies little in and of itself—certainly iGov is a well-respected government supplier—but it is an indication of how super-heated the market has become for Wi-Fi systems in government, and in the military in particular.