U.S. Air Force Goes Commercial with Network Consolidation Effort

CIO John M. Gilligan is leading a makeover of the U.S. Air Force's IT systems that involves consolidating infrastructure, centralizing management, standardizing applications and building a foundation for Web services. It's a vast project, affecting some 500,000 personnel stationed across 110 military installations.

It's also a network-centric project, which will give the Air Force the means of "leveraging information across the spectrum of our war-fighting operations to give us significant combat advantage," says Gilligan, who oversees the agency's multibillion-dollar IT operations.

When this project began in 2001, the Air Force's IT landscape was decentralized, fragmented and expensive to maintain. While the agency had strong IT operations, it lacked consistent technical standards and operating procedures. Without uniformity, IT managers couldn't be assured, for instance, that a new enterprisewide application would work everywhere.

To correct these problems, cut IT costs and improve services, the Air Force began consolidating servers and networks and setting uniform policy and technical standards. It also began moving to commercial systems, which were already in wide use on many bases, such as Microsoft Corp.'s Active Directory and Systems Management Server, as well as Hewlett-Packard Co.'s OpenView for systems and network management.

"We really didn't have much of an option," says Gilligan. "To do what we wanted to do, we had to rely on commercial technology—it works, and it's pretty good."

In adopting commercial technology, the Air Force is following a practice that has been gaining steam since the Clinton administration. Federal agencies have been replacing legacy systems with commercial ones with the goal of improving interoperability and integration and reducing costs.

The Air Force's push is part of a broader U.S. Department of Defense goal for network-centric services delivery. But the Air Force has been "a little bit of a leader" in bringing together commercial off-the-shelf software with existing systems to satisfy those objectives, says Ray Bjorklund, an analyst at Federal Sources Inc. in McLean, Va. The Air Force work is influencing similar efforts at the Navy and DOD, he says.

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John M. Gilligan, CIO, U.S. Air Force
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But the Air Force is holding onto one proprietary technology: its security systems. "The code is not available commercially, and we believe that gives us some additional level of confidence," says Gilligan.

A major challenge was overcoming cultural resistance from IT organizations that were used to some degree of independence.

First, Gilligan got feedback from top Air Force officials. He then developed measurement metrics and helped foster competition among various commanders in meeting project objectives. With 10 CIOs at major commands reporting to Gilligan, the competition is such "that one organization wants to be out front, so they actually accelerate," he says.

The Air Force has nearly completed its network and server consolidation and estimates that new abilities such as remote desktop management are helping it save $200 million per year.

"Our objectives are the same: to give our war fighters a consistent, easily accessible set of capabilities anywhere in the world," says Gilligan. "And we also hope to get the benefit of some cost efficiencies."

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U.S. Air Force

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Organization: Includes 110 bases, 500,000 personnel and 10 CIOs at major commands

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Project champion: John M. Gilligan

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IT department: 80,000

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Project payback: E-mail servers have been cut from 1,400 to fewer than 300. Remote management of desktops has reduced costs by 50%. Some 2,000 Air Force personnel have been freed up to move to other jobs.

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