We decided that we needed an event-driven replication process. Replication is the key to this system. It allows you to pick up and operate from virtually anywhere in the world. Many times, when you’re building a network, a COOP (continuity of operations – a backup site capable of handling essential processes in the event of a systems failure) is a nice thing to have. But in this scenario, it’s a necessity.
The warfighting command’s Airmen used many different systems, internet, intranet and extranet sites to store, share and refer to information. It became a colossal problem in a command where more than 99 percent of the people assigned to USAFCENT only stay for an average of six months or less during a tour. New folks come in and must learn a new system, a new filing method and a new job and then remember to pass that on to their replacements a few months later.
Many locations and bases use “shared and network drives” to store large amounts of information. All bases did it differently and other bases or sites didn’t have access to each other’s files. They needed one common dashboard view across the organization.
“We needed to get everyone on the same page with where they were storing and the way they were sharing information between here at Shaw and the folks forward,” said Bill Strickland, technical director at the AFCENT Network Operations and Security Center (NOSC). “We also needed instant access between the sites on updates in a secure environment.”
“He wanted to see a common working environment between here and at deployed locations,” said Strickland, referring to the Commanding General. “He wanted one AFCENT across the board, across the pond.”
With that in mind, the NOSC team developed a concept and a plan. Then they began testing software and hardware to determine what would work best for the massive task at hand.
The team decided to use Microsoft SharePoint as the backbone of the system that would eventually connect Shaw Air Force Base to 26 other bases or sites worldwide with similar IT infrastructure. The servers would have to facilitate collaboration of efforts at all levels of an organization, and after much effort, trials and testing, and a few other software additions, the Commander’s Dashboard was born.
“We decided that we needed an event-driven replication process,” said Strickland. “Replication is the key to this system. It allows you to pick up and operate from virtually anywhere in the world.”
This means that every time anything is done to a document in the system, an automated signal is sent to all connected servers to let them know an update was made to shared information in real-time. The document could be loaded at the CAOC, changed by someone at USAFCENT Headquarters, updated on the server back at the CAOC and throughout the AOR in less than five minutes.
With all the replication to various server farms in the AOR and stateside, the system is near fail safe. Sites replicate to each other to provide active COOP. There are backup server farms which are replicating information making the redundancy nearly indistinguishable from the original. This type of assurance is built in case of a catastrophic failure of any system.
“Many times, when you’re building a network, a COOP (continuity of operations – a backup site capable of handling essential processes in the event of a systems failure) is a nice thing to have,” said Paul Font, senior network systems architect. “But in this scenario, it’s a necessity.”
The uniqueness of the CC’s Dashboard is that it’s the first for the Department of Defense, and possibly ever, that massive amounts of information will be shared over a network connecting multiple countries and sites via satellite feeds.
Continuous replication of information, makes the information found on the Dashboard the same whether the user is in Afghanistan, South Carolina or downtown Baghdad. All the A-Staff and special offices have a unique site for their information and knowledge exchange. All the sites look similar. “Per General North, we wanted to be able to go anywhere on the site with three clicks,” Colonel Lipin said.
With a system built to handle the air war, and all the information it takes to fight it, great concern was taken on how a user can find the information he or she needs within seconds. So, a powerful search tool was added to ease the burden of finding one document out of a database this size.
Often, valuable time is lost because a person “can’t remember where I saved that document” – but with the Dashboard’s search tool, those days are gone, Colonel Lipin said. “This search tool will be the user’s best friend.