Earlier this year, the UK government launched a new public sector procurement framework for emerging technologies, providing organisations with a marketplace to access innovative solutions in areas including artificial intelligence and the internet of things.
The marketplace, Spark, will support public sector bodies by more easily identifying cutting-edge products and services that public organisations can use to drive innovation as well as cost-savings across the public sector. The Crown Commercial Service, which has responsibility for improving all of the UK government’s commercial and procurement activity, estimates that up to £20m will be spent through Spark in its first year.
I suspect that Spark’s purchasing efficiency will be popular in the defence sector. The UK has been laudably thrifty in managing defence expenditures in recent years, and one has to believe that a willingness to embrace new ways to work is part of that efficiency. Indeed, according to a Briefing Paper on UK Defence Expenditure published by The House of Commons Library Research, expenditures have been stable at approximately £36bn per year over the last five years.
By 2019/2020, this is forecast to rise to £37.6bn, meaning the UK will maintain its position as one of only six member states to achieve the NATO target of 2% defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP. Of course, guarding the security of a nation isn’t always about choosing the absolute lowest cost or most efficient solution. It has to be balanced against assuring mission-critical reliability and a guarantee of defence grade security and interoperability.
The fact is that every defence organisation on earth is struggling to meet the advanced needs of the modern warfighter while modernising existing infrastructure. Ribbon Communications has been addressing these same challenges for the US Department of Defence (DoD) as it upgrades and modernises its communications infrastructure. The DoD is trying to deliver a modern communications experience while reducing expenses and improving service readiness.
Sharing Common Communications Needs
When it comes to communications, the US DoD and UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) have a lot more in common than one might suspect. Both organisations have a significant installed base of Nortel phone equipment. Back in 2005, BT announced a partnership with Nortel as its chief supplier to deploy secure managed voice and data services to the MoD and British Armed Forces. The deployment formed part of a five-year extension to the Defence Fixed Telecommunications Service contract the MoD had in place with BT, which was worth up to £1.5bn at the time and saw BT build and manage the department’s mission critical telecommunications infrastructure.
At the time, the deployment was predicted to save the MoD £15m per year through increased operational efficiencies as well as providing enhanced security and responsiveness. In terms of infrastructure, Nortel highlighted that the new infrastructure would provide voice services to over 200,000 users and Ethernet-based connectivity to 150,000 terminals.
Ribbon acquired Nortel’s service provider business in 2010. As a result, we are still supporting Communication Service Providers and government customers with legacy Nortel SL-100/CS2100 hardware & software across the globe. Defence organisations have remained loyal to Nortel solutions given their long history of providing carrier-grade reliability. They just don’t break! Of course, organisations have begun migrating to newer iterations of platforms that are fully virtualised to support today’s increasing movement towards cloud-based technology, in addition to supporting industry standard Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) devices across Internet Protocol (IP)-based networks. These new platforms are ideally suited for large-scale private cloud deployments, enabling secure connectivity no matter where a service member is deployed.
The Challenges of Modernising Massive Communications Networks
Unfortunately, defence organisations have not all been able to move forward with modernisation programs for communications. What we have observed is that the diversity of communications systems deployed makes it challenging to create a cohesive environment. Of course, defence organisations want a completely modernised communications environment, but getting there is not quick or cheap.
Neither the DoD nor the MoD has the budget to upgrade hundreds of thousands or millions of endpoints at once. Instead, they need an incremental framework to create solutions that can best leverage existing products from multiple vendors, with technology spanning various decades to create a cohesive solution. This model allows the organisations to march forward at a steady pace, gaining ground with each step. To use the old analogy, “you have to be able to rebuild the plane while it’s in the air.”
The need to act incrementally should come as no surprise as migrating expansive military installations to modern communications is often a slow and expensive process. It’s not unusual to find bases that are still using copper cabling from the Second World War, buried under buildings and airport runways. Digging up this infrastructure to install new cabling is often not a viable option.
The story doesn’t get prettier inside many offices and workshops. Asbestos, commonly used for fire prevention, is still present in many buildings. In many cases the asbestos isn’t hazardous, unless it is disturbed. However, trying to install new Ethernet cabling in ceilings and crawlspaces can be very ‘disturbing’ and require asbestos removal, and asbestos abatement can cost more than an entire communications upgrade. These types of issues are identical in the US DoD, which is why Ribbon has invested in cost-effective migration models for Nortel and similar legacy telecom gear that allows for the re-use of legacy infrastructure and a common sense migration path to upgrading communications networks.
The importance of being able to utilise existing endpoints and the cost savings it allows cannot be overstated. In the case of organisations the size of the US DoD or the UK MoD this could amount to millions of dollars or pounds in capital costs savings.
The Importance of Interoperability and Security
Of course, another consideration with any major technology deployment for the MoD is the need to protect communications from an ever-increasing number of sophisticated threats. Again, this is the same in the USA. The US Department of Defence requires all telecommunications related equipment and software to earn Joint Interoperability Test Command (JITC) certification.
JITC is the DoD’s compliance test agency for information technology and national security systems. Achieving JITC certification is one of the highest honours a solution can earn because of all of the stringent tests it undergoes. Only the most resilient, hardened and secure solutions pass JITC certification.
JITC uses risk-based Test Evaluation & Certification services, tools, and environments to add products, services and tools onto an Approved Products List (APL). Everything on this list, when deployed according to JITC evaluation criteria, help ensure that all capabilities are interoperable and secure enough to support critical mission needs.
Case Study: A Historical Transformation of the US DoD Communications Network
As you can see, the US Department of Defence has many of the same issues and needs as the MoD. The DoD has adopted a strategy of centralising platforms to try to collapse bespoke legacy infrastructure. It’s focused on creating an environment where different systems and products can be integrated together. Ribbon has experienced this first-hand, helping the DoD complete one of the largest Voice Over IP (VoIP) deployments in its history.
We worked with our partners, Verizon Enterprise Solutions, Black Box, and Visioneering on the VoIP deployment. This included the migration of more than 60,000 users over one weekend, enabling the DoD to significantly enhance its communications capabilities with the latest in secure real-time unified communications technology, including the ability to seamlessly integrate voice, video, instant messaging, presence and conferencing into the end-user experience.
What’s more, the deployment was carried out by leveraging existing communications infrastructure, with seamless migration to the upgraded technology. Thousands of Nortel endpoints were remotely reprogrammed and made available for re-use with the new technology. As a result, the DoD was able to extend the value of significant investments made in the Nortel AS 5300 and CS 2100 phone systems it had deployed previously, with the cost and time associated with deployment significantly less than would have been with an implementing an entirely new solution. This also eliminated the need to retrain end-users or disrupt DoD office operations. Here is what some of our partners had to say about this deployment:
“This deployment represents a significant step towards modernization for the US Department of Defence agency involved,” said Sonya Cork, Vice President of Sales for Verizon Enterprise Solutions. “We are pleased to know that with this deployment and the broader Verizon-led migration to Unified Communications (UC), users are now using a communications system that addresses their IT needs now and is also scalable for the future.”
“With extensive experience in designing and deploying UC systems, the Visioneering team is honoured to have played a key role in delivering the DoD an enhanced communications system that was scalable with best-in-class security and high-availability,” said Jerry James President, Visioneering. “We worked closely with the Ribbon team and other partners on a strategic approach to address the complex architectural design and ensure a seamless implementation and cutover of this project with minimal disruption.”
This DoD deployment is a great example of how government organisations can better prepare their communications environments for future forces without having to rip out and replace all of their equipment. As outlined above, the MoD faces many of the same issues as the DoD in upgrading its communications network. Every deployment is different, but we believe the MoD has much to gain by studying the DoD’s success.