ZapThink recently conducted our Licensed ZapThink Architect Bootcamp course for a branch of the United States Department of Defense (DoD). As it happens, an increasing proportion of our US-based business is for the DoD, which is perfectly logical, given the strategic nature Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) plays for the DoD. SOA is so strategic, in fact, that SOA underlies how the DoD expects to achieve its mission in the 21st century — namely, defending US interests by presenting the most powerful military presence on the globe. Furthermore, the story of how SOA became so strategic for the DoD provides insight into the power of SOA for all organizations, both in the public and private sector.
This story begins with the issue of complexity. The DoD, as you might imagine, is an organization of astounding complexity, perhaps the most complex organization in the world, save the US Federal Government itself of which the DoD is indubitably the most complex part. And with complexity comes vulnerability. As the sole remaining global superpower, the US’s strength in battle, namely our overwhelming force, presents vulnerabilities to much smaller enemies. Traditional guerrilla tactics give small forces advantages over large ones, after all. Our 21st century adversaries understand full well the ancient principle of using an enemy’s strengths against them. The DoD is rightly concerned that its sheer scale and complexity present weaknesses that today’s terrorism-centric threats can take advantage of.
From the Network to Service Orientation
Even before 9/11, there was an understanding that the core challenge that this complexity presented was one of information: who has it, how to share it, and how to rely upon it to make decisions — in military parlance, Command and Control (C2). In response to this need, the DoD instituted a new strategic program, Network Centric Warfare, also known as Net-Centricity. The idea for Network Centric Warfare arose during the late 1990s in response to the rise of the Internet. Its original concepts, therefore, were essentially “Web 1.0” in nature. It didn’t take long, however, for DoD architects to realize that the network itself was only a piece of the puzzle, and it soon became clear that the challenges of Net-Centricity were as much organizational as technological. After all, Net-Centricity requires cooperation across the different branches of service — a tall order for an organization as siloed as the DoD.
In fact, as the DoD and their contractors hammered out the details of Net-Centricity, it became increasingly clear that Net-Centricity required a broad, architectural approach to achieving agile information sharing in the context of a complex, siloed organization. At that point, SOA entered the Net-Centricity picture, providing essential best practices for sharing information resources to support business process needs. In the military context, such business processes are operational processes, where the operation at hand might be fueling airplanes or deploying ground troops or spying on suspected terrorists with a satellite. When battlefield commanders say that they want the warfighting resources at their disposal to be available as needed to achieve their mission objectives, they are essentially requiring a Service-Oriented approach to Net-Centricity.
Information as a Strategic Military Asset
Information has always been a part of warfare, since the stone age or even earlier. Essentially, the element of surprise boils down to one force having information the other does not, regardless of whether you’re sneaking up on a foe with a club or leveraging satellite technology to precisely target an attack. The same is true of Net-Centricity. Net-Centricity centers on supporting the military’s C2 capabilities by ensuring the right information is in the right place at the right time. These three dimensions all create a path toward SOA:
- The right information:commanders on the battlefield need all relevant information. It is essential to have access to relevant information from different forces, different locations, and different branches of service. Furthermore, commanders need a way to separate relevant information from the surrounding noise. And finally, they must ensure that the information is reliable.
- In the right place:today’s warfare is an inherently distributed endeavor. Gone are the days where armies fight each other on single fields of battle. Today, commanders might call upon forces from hundreds of miles away, on land, at sea, in the air, or in space. Furthermore, the people who need the information might be anywhere. For example, a navy ship may get the information it needs to target a missile from air support, satellite-based intelligence, and ground capabilities. The commander needs one view while the troops on the battlefield need another.
- At the right time: information is perishable. The more dynamic the purpose of that information, the more perishable it becomes. Knowing where your enemies are right now is far more valuable then where they were an hour or a day ago.
If you’ve been following ZapThink for any amount of time, you’ll recognize these business drivers as being a recipe for SOA. It’s no surprise, therefore that the Global Information Grid (GIG), a central Net-Centric capability, is inherently Service-Oriented. The GIG essentially consists of a set of Services that provide the underpinnings of the right information at the right place at the right time, as the figure below illustrates.
There are a few features of the GIG worth noting. First, note how the core notion of a Service pervades the GIG. Every capability, from security to messaging to management, is represented as a Service. Secondly, keep in mind the global nature of the GIG. This is not a solitary data center; the GIG represents global IT capabilities across all branches of service for the entire DoD.
Today, the stakes for Net-Centricity couldn’t be higher, because information itself proffers a new set of weapons, and even new battlefields. As a result, Net-Centricity focuses not only on leveraging shared IT capabilities to gain an advantage on both large and small opponents using traditional tactics, it also covers protecting our forces from information-based attacks as well as launching our own. After all, if a small but smart opponent combines traditional guerrilla warfare with the information-centric guerrilla tactics we now call cyberwarfare, our vulnerabilities multiply. If a single opponent with an improvised explosive device can wound us, what about a single opponent with a means to interfere with our communications infrastructure?
The ZapThink Take
There are lessons here for our readers both within the DoD as well as at other organizations, including those within the private sector, where the battles are economic. For DoD readers, it’s important to recognize the importance of SOA to Net-Centricity, in particular how the architecture required to succeed with Net-Centricity is the true SOA that ZapThink talks about, where organizational transformation is a greater challenge than the technological issues that organizations face.
For other organizations, the lesson here is how to take a page out of the DoD’s playbook. Net-Centricity is by no means the first example of how a DoD project led to broad commercial application; after all, the Internet itself is a case in point. In the DoD we have an organization with both a mind-boggling complexity problem and enormous resources, both financial and human, to assign to the problem. Sharing information across lines of business in a bank or manufacturer or power utility is child’s play in comparison to getting the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines to share information effectively.
Furthermore, as ZapThink continues its work within the DoD, we can help act as a conduit for conveying the best practices of Net-Centricity to the private sector, as well as other government organizations. You’ll see evidence of Net-Centric lessons learned in both our LZA Bootcamp as well as our new SOA & Cloud Governance course. The more complex your organization, the more a Net-Centric approach to achieving your strategic goals is a useful context for your SOA efforts, and ZapThink can help.
Finally, some organizations may find the concept of Net-Centricity to be a useful synonym for SOA. If you’re having trouble explaining the benefits of SOA to a business audience, perhaps a discussion of Net-Centricity will help to shed the light on the approach you’re recommending. After all, not only does Net-Centricity focus on effective information sharing in a complex environment, it also distills the urgency and importance of the military context, where the enemy is literally trying to kill us. Competition in the marketplace may not be a literal life-or-death battle, but leveraging best practice approaches to fighting such battles that treat them as though they were truly about survival is an attitude that any seasoned business stakeholder can take to heart.