Open source clears up the military stovepipe mess: Interview with Carl Houghton, Vice President, Strategic Initiatives & Advanced Technology, Intelligent Software Solutions
Editor’s note: While the issue of military stovepipes continues on, Government Off-the-Shelf software provider Intelligent Software Solutions’ toolkit – already in use by several branches of the U.S. Armed Forces – is thwarting the challenge by making it possible to link several disparate databases or data sources that would have otherwise not been able to “talk” to each other. As Managing Editor Sharon Hess found out when she recently talked to Carl Houghton, Vice President, Strategic Initiatives & Advanced Technology at Intelligent Software Solutions, the “real-time” ability of the software to combine data fast and automatically notify operators of data changes greatly simplifies the challenge for command and control operatives, as well as other government personnel. Meanwhile, the open source software company also does a thing or two with iOS and Android – and watches to see which one will capture the market. Edited excerpts follow.
HOUGHTON: Intelligent Software Solutions is a software and public services company founded about 15 years ago and headquartered in Colorado Springs. The company was started by four software engineers who still own the company. We’ve got close to 700 employees today, with offices in Tampa, Florida; Rome, New York; Washington, D.C.; and Hampton, Virginia; and we just opened an office recently in Boston. We’ve got four major business units in the company: One focuses on Command and Control and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance. We also have a National Systems division, focused on D.C. area customers and the Coast Guard. Then we have our Enterprise System Division, which used to be called Combat Systems and provides support to ongoing operations in Afghanistan and a couple other places. And then we’ve got my division, Strategic Initiatives, and we focus on advanced technology development. We are doing things for DARPA and other service laboratories and research and development work, both IRAD as well as government-funded research and development.
You’re focused on Government Off-the-Shelf [GOTS], I believe?
HOUGHTON: Yes, we develop software for desktop, Web, and mobile device applications; we’re predominantly a Government Off-the-Shelf software provider: The government owns unlimited use rights to everything we develop, so they don’t have to license for each deployment. What is nice about that model is that we’ve got this ubiquitous data access framework on the backend that can connect up to a lot of different data sources. And then we can use that to push the data out, whether it be to a desktop application, a Web application, or a mobile application. And so we try to reuse these government off-the-shelf frameworks as much as we can in our applications.
Can you tell me which government entities you work with and which kinds of open source software you’re providing them?
HOUGHTON: Our largest contract is actually with the Air Force Research Laboratory [AFRL], and they use our WebTAS-TK toolkit. It started out as a $350 million indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity [AFRL] contract, but any government agency can use [the contract] to purchase software and services. The toolkit is software that provides ubiquitous data access, visualization, and data analysis for a wide range of applications. And what’s nice about it is we can build on top of that framework. [When] you want to build the new application, we have a 70 to 80 percent solution at the starting point and then we can build what we call “business layers” on top of that to extend it to solve different problems. So for the Coast Guard, we could take a piece of Government Off-the-Shelf software, build a business layer on top of that that is specific to their requirements and workload, and they have a solution without having to start from scratch and [without having to] ask for licensing and software. So we replicate that model across the government space.
We do a lot of work with the Air Force and the Army and some work with the Coast Guard, as I mentioned. We typically provide them with WebTAS-TK or perhaps CIDNE, which is software that tracks events. So if you have a series of events that takes place and you want to track it and you want to track who was involved, for example, CIDNE enables you to do that. So the main two applications we deploy to our customer base right now are WebTAS-TK and CIDNE. We’ve got other types of software that are more minor applications. We do service oriented architecture infrastructures for the space community and for several others.
Are WebTAS-TK and CIDNE used by warfighters or by operators at a desk?
HOUGHTON: Yes to both. The users could be [soldiers] deployed in Afghanistan, who use the software for various visualization/analytical purposes [and transmit that information] to people who are back in the U.S. using the data for Command and Control purposes. The Coast Guard is using it for maritime operations for securing our ports.
Let’s drill down on how WebTAS-TK works.
HOUGHTON: Sure. So the software itself is predominantly a Java-based framework that allows us to do database connections. We can use JDBC- or ODBC-type connections to connect to relational databases. We can connect to other relational data sources; we can connect to Web services and various streaming data sources. I can’t go into specific details about specific applications on the government space, but I can give you some information. For example, if you had 20 different relational databases that range from Excel spreadsheets through Access databases all the way up to enterprise Oracle instances and you wanted to federate those into a single data space that could have a single logical object monolog you could query against – [WebTAS-TK] provides the ability to federate and provide that single logical object model and data space.
So once you have that, then we have a whole series of different analytical tools that allow you to visualize and analyze data temporally, geospatially, and internodally to look for interesting bits of data from your federated data space.
Tell me more about the Web and mobile applications you work on.
HOUGHTON: On the Web side, we use a wide variety of technologies, anything from Java server faces to Flex and Flash. We do a lot with pure Flash with Flex and ActionScript. We also were doing some HTML5 applications, and all of those have the ability to come through the WebTAS-TK backend or provide Web-based access to that data. In the mobile space we develop on both iOS and Android, and we get to those through the use of JSON or other transport media to get the information from a WebTAS-TK backend to a mobile device on the front end.
Can you give a scenario of how the military would use WebTAS-TK?
HOUGHTON: Let’s say you had a Command and Control application requirement and that you have a database that has information on where a particular aircraft is located. And maybe you have other sources of information that say, “Here is the status of all the various bases.” And then you’ve got a third database that has maybe targets for flying purposes, and you need to federate those things so you can plan missions, know what your available resources are and what their status is, and know which targets you are going to plan against. And you need the ability to eventually bring that data together from these three disparate databases that don’t talk to each other in order to be able to do that planning. That is what you could do with this software. You could imagine that could be 50 different databases. Today it is a classic problem [in the military] of “I’ve got all these different stovepipes and no way to federate and look across them such that I can make those decisions.”
Does WebTAS-TK deliver the data, analyses, and so on in real time?
HOUGHTON: It’s real time. It can operate transactionally. So as a database or data source gets updated in real time or when a table gets data added to it or updated, or a Web service fires an event to say “Hey, something has changed,” the software can make a real-time update to the displays and the analytics and notify the operator. I know you’re talking embedded systems, so when you talk “real time,” it may be on a different sort of scale or level, but in a database transaction level, we are real time. If there has been a transaction in the database, we’re talking less than a second that the other data is updated and the operator can be made aware there has been a change to a database table.
So the change notifications are automatically generated by the software?
HOUGHTON: Correct. So the services piece that we do is customization of the software to a particular domain. But we’re not a data producer.
Since your products are deployed to the military or government, is there a security feature built into the software?
HOUGHTON: Yes. There is a security manager built into the software and it does go through security accreditation by the appropriate government agency(ies) for deployment. Both CIDNE and WebTAS-TK go through accreditation for every release.
Can you tell me more about CIDNE – how it works or a real-life military scenario?
HOUGHTON: I can’t go into as much detail on CIDNE specifically. I am basically constrained as to what is in the public domain on the program. But we use Adobe ColdFusion; it runs on top of the Microsoft SQL Server database and allows people to enter events of interest and track those events over time and space.
Is it looking for just a preset, specific event like “I am looking for a man wearing a hat going into a building,” or does it look for similarities between events?
HOUGHTON: In and of itself, it is not an analytical program. It is really a database, a federated database of events. So really it’s a series of forms where people can enter events, and they really can be any kind of event. So it could be that we’ve got burglaries around San Antonio and I want to be able to track those burglaries for the police department. It will allow users to track who was involved, where the burglaries took place, geospatially and temporally, and gives you a standardized way of everybody entering that information. But that is just one class of events; you could have a thousand classes of events and you could track them all in a single database. That is really what the power of the thing is.
You said that military is using CIDNE now?
HOUGHTON: Yes, but I can’t really go into the details of that, unfortunately.
What would you say is the focus of your government and military customers? What are the trends?
HOUGHTON: I think what we see and again when you look at constrained budgets going forward, they don’t want to necessarily pay huge licensing fees for software. And then the ability for them to fund just development on the specific functionality that they want and the ability to rapidly get that functionality into their hands.
What else – any specific technology capabilities?
HOUGHTON: Yeah, the ability to provide ubiquitous data access and connect up to and federate all those data sources is something that is very attractive. The other functional thing that people like is the ability, for instance, to send output to Google Earth. Seemingly that is a very simple thing, but when you get in and say, “OK, I want to take Google Earth and I want to connect up to 50 different data sources with it,” there is not a way to do that out-of-the-box using just Google Earth – especially if those are relational databases with very complex data models. And so we have a lot of users that use us as kind of an intermediary to translate from all the databases they want to get at and send to Google Earth on the other side.
All the software your company designs – WebTAS-TK and CIDNE and your software for mobile devices – that’s ALL Government Off-the-Shelf?
HOUGHTON: That is correct. Everything we do is GOTS.
Would there be security issues in using GOTS software for commercial customers, if your commercial customers knew how to use the same software that government customers were using?
HOUGHTON: No, because the core software itself is rather innocuous. There are no security issues with providing that in the commercial space. We have gotten approval from the government to actually sell it as a commercial product, so they have gone through the security reviews and have no issues with it. We have also gone through the Commerce Department and gotten a commerce jurisdiction to sell it externally to foreign countries. And anytime we deal with potentially foreign military sales, we have to go through ITAR, which is, of course, a rather involved review before we can export anything.
Are there any new trends in open source software?
HOUGHTON: The biggest one that we are seeing is the transition to rich Internet technologies – and the trend over the past year to push toward more HTML5 functionality in the rich Internet application space and even in the mobile application space. With Adobe announcing this year that they are giving up on Flash runtime on the mobile devices and feeding that to HTML5, it’s really interesting. One of the best things with HTML5 is that it provides the ability to do all the things you can do with Flash in terms of having a rich experience inside the browser (the ability to play video and to play audio and to have interactive content) – without having any plug-ins. HTML5 is still not a standard ratified by the World Wide Web Consortium, so Internet Explorer and Microsoft are still not fully compliant with the HTML5 spec. But other browsers such as Google Chrome and Safari are implementing all the functionality.
The other huge growth area that we are seeing is just Android being proliferated as an open source operating system on mobile devices and really providing an [alternative] to iOS. The fact that you have an open source operating system in a mobile space is very attractive. So I think the proliferation and growth of Android and in particular in the tablet space is going to be interesting as they try to compete with the iPad and iOS.
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