Streamlining the ultimate supply chain

U.S. Transportation Command has launched a campaign to revitalize its IT with an ambitious SOA implementation

U.S. Transportation Command, the division of the Department of Defense responsible for worldwide air, land, and sea transportation for the U.S. armed services, manages the mother of all supply chains. It distributes matériel to every corner of the defense enterprise — including durable goods, fuel and consumable supplies, hazardous materials, perishables, and even personnel.

“USTransCom is a multibillion-dollar, multinational operation,” says Air Force Brig. Gen. Mike Basla, director of command, control, communications, and computer systems for the command. “There aren’t too many examples in the corporate world, if any, that we could say resemble the kind of scope and breadth of what we do.”

USTransCom’s mandate was broadened significantly in 2003, when it was assigned the role of DPO (Distribution Process Owner). Previously, the command had been concerned only with distribution from the port where goods were loaded to the port where they were received. The DPO designation extended its responsibilities to include coordination and synchronization of the supply chain from end to end.

But as the scope of USTransCom’s operations increased, so too did the complexity of its IT infrastructure. Basla guesses that USTransCom’s full distribution capabilities are now distributed across some 600 IT systems, many of them antiquated, poorly integrated, and redundant. “If you go back maybe 15 years in technology, you can probably find it somewhere in the enterprise,” Basla says.

Given the uncertainty surrounding ongoing military budgets, overhauling that legacy infrastructure has become a top priority. During the next few years, USTransCom will consolidate its systems and eliminate legacy applications as part of an ambitious move toward a modern infrastructure based on SOA, with the goal of reducing those 600 systems to fewer than 100.

Branching out and paring down

If a shipment of supplies is currently in Rota, Spain, to be delivered to Ash Shuaybah, Kuwait, on Oct. 5, then trucked that afternoon to Kuwait International Airport, where it will be loaded onto a C-130 for delivery to Balad Airbase in Iraq, field commanders must have confidence that the supply chain is credible and that those individual deadlines will be met. That’s why, according Gen. Norton Schwartz, USTransCom’s combatant commander, moving the information about the stuff is as important as moving the stuff.

With DPO responsibility, however, USTransCom must track that information across the IT systems of multiple branches of the armed forces and then beyond, to the systems of its various partners both inside and outside the DoD. Reducing the redundancy in that multidomain infrastructure is one of the key goals of USTransCom’s SOA initiative.

For example, USTransCom currently employs an aerial port operations system called the GATES (Global Air Transportation and Execution System) and a seaport operations system called the WPS (Worldwide Port System). Basla estimates that nearly 90 percent of those systems’ activities are common between them. The key to eliminating that overlap, he says, will be to reduce the number of IT systems in use by exposing essential functionality as services. That might mean altering existing processes, but the critical goal is to maintain the full capabilities that the original systems provided.

Where to strike first

The first step in that process will be to identify functional areas that are good candidates for the transition to services. “I challenge the folks in our architecture and our integration [teams] to define those top-level services that we think are essential to our core business areas,” Basla says. “That’s the first thing: Understand who your customers are and what they require. And then the next thing is: What are those processes that you use in order to deliver those goods and services?”

Manifesting of cargo and passengers is one example, currently handled by multiple systems that USTransCom could easily consolidate into services. Basla says his team’s first task is to identify other such “25-meter targets” — military jargon for “low-hanging fruit” — that will become the initial testing grounds of its SOA efforts.

When decomposing functional areas into services, Basla says, the trick is to strike a balance. You want the resulting services to be granular enough that all of the capabilities that users require of the system are understood, accounted for, and can be delivered. At the same time, you don’t want to create services that are so granular that the resulting portfolio of services grows too large and difficult to manage.

Data management will be a key aspect of USTransCom’s transition to SOA. “We understand our processes very well. We are getting our arms around our data sets,” Basla says. He points to the DoD’s standard set of data elements for financial information systems as a good example of how USTransCom should develop a standard data set for its own distribution systems.

“We aren’t going to get every data element that has everything to do with distribution and deployment into that data set,” he says. “It would choke a horse. But we are going to get down to ... the essentials for conducting operations and passing information.”

Taking advantage of intra-agency expertise will also be of critical importance throughout this planning process. USTransCom’s core competency is distribution. When it comes to network services, Basla and his team will rely on Lt. Gen. Charles Croom and the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) to provide those capabilities. When it comes to IT services that assist in threat assessment for transportation crews, USTransCom will rely on the intelligence community. “We’re going to stay in our lane,” Basla says.

At the same time, USTransCom and its partner agencies rely on cross-departmental knowledge sharing to identify all of the requirements of their IT systems. Experts on transportation subject matter — who Basla calls “functionals” — become core members of IT teams and act as sounding boards for architecture and program functionality. No systems functionality is deployed without first being validated for accuracy and completeness by the functional team members.

Sold on SOA, for now

Transitioning USTransCom’s entire architecture to SOA will take years and is expected to involve multiple phases of deployment. What gives Basla confidence are the many commercial solutions available to help USTransCom meet its goals, in addition to the wealth of knowledge available in the corporate sector.

USTransCom regularly consults with domain experts from companies such as Wal-Mart and FedEx to help improve its own supply-chain operations. Still other companies see business opportunities in working with DoD; they, too, play a role in helping to modernize USTransCom’s infrastructure.

At the same time, Basla is careful not to put all of his eggs in one basket. “SOA is the solution du jour,” he says, noting that it can also have its pitfalls. In the time it takes to implement USTransCom’s plans, the IT marketplace might change and new, alternative solutions could arise. But Basla is confident that SOA is an important next step in the slow, ongoing process of reinventing IT at USTransCom.

“The truth of the matter is, what’s cutting edge in the government is not cutting edge in industry,” Basla says, pointing to the size and complexity of government IT infrastructure and how difficult it is to recapitalize — not to mention how long it takes to deploy new solutions. “We don’t move as fast as we would like to. And that’s why we need to reduce the complexity — so that we can be more agile.”