To make the right decision, it’s essential to have the right information at the right time. But just what information is needed, when and in relation to what other information is a subtle science that tests the mettle of IT managers everywhere.
In the armed forces, victory and defeat-not to mention human life-may hang in the balance of every decision that is made. In its ongoing effort to enable better decision-making, the U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency, or DISA, has deployed an enterprise mashup server running JackBe software to bring together strategic information from disparate sources, particularly geographic and mapping data.
“The DOD [Department of Defense] has the ability to mash up multiple data sources on the fly and display them geospatially with off-the-shelf products,” said DISA CTO David Mihelcic.
A mashup is generally understood to be a Web application that combines information from multiple sources to create a single new piece of information. Enterprise mashup software, according to Mike Gualtieri, an analyst at Forrester Research, provides tools that enable users to create mashups at the application layer.
Although there are many vendors offering mashup capabilities, there are only three vendors offering enterprise mashup software: JackBe, IBM with its Lotus Mashups tools and Serena Software with its Business Mashups offering. In a report issued in May 2008, Forrester predicted that the enterprise mashup market would reach $682 million in 2013, growing from only $39 million in 2007.
However, a distinct mashup product market has not yet emerged, with products existing in related and often overlapping fields, such as application development and decision support. After bursting onto the scene several years ago, mashups looked like a contender for the next big thing. But Gualtieri predicts that mashup software will sooner or later be assimilated into the development tools market, often as a feature of other tools. “Mashups are really in the category of end-user developer tools,” said the analyst.
Department of Defense Mashups
Mashups at the DOD
Still, the value provided to DISA by enterprise mashup tools is real.
An initial deployment of JackBe software at the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) in a project called “Overwatch” provided inspiration for DISA to deploy the JackBe Presto Enterprise Mashup Server software so that it is available across the DOD.
By taking an enterprisewide approach, DISA can see that the benefits of mashup technology are not limited to a single department but are available to U.S. military personnel globally. Information brought to light by the mashups can percolate up through the chain of command all the way to top generals and even to the commander in chief.
DISA has enabled the creation of mashups to address several distinct threats, including natural disasters, terror attacks and ballistic missile launches. Military staff can use the JackBe Presto drag-and-drop interface to customize mashups based on known mission threats in hours or minutes, depending on the need, said Mihelcic.
For example, “The Global Command and Control System has the capability to ingest information from multiple different sources. It can build a synthetic picture of good guys and bad guys worldwide,” Mihelcic said. In that particular mashup, he explained, information as to the strength and whereabouts of forces is mashed up with mapping data. Allied forces are depicted in blue and hostile forces in red.
In another mapping-based mashup, DOD users are able to bring together geographic information from Google Maps and Google Earth with information about suspected IEDs (improvised explosive devices) to give troops in Iraq information about the location of possible threats.
In early 2009, DISA launched a proof of concept (known in the military as a Joint Concept Technology Demonstration, or JCTD) called the NSLDSS (National Senior Leadership Decision Support Service).
“NSLDSS can take data sources on classified DOD networks, such as data on missile warnings or the status of U.S. and foreign forces, and ingest it into a mashup for senior-level decision makers to enable them to more quickly develop courses of action and make decisions about what needs to be done,” Mihelcic said.
The information is available separately as RSS feeds, but the Presto Enterprise Mashup Server correlates the information with other data to increase the value of the data. “JackBe lets you build services on an enterprise server that can be accessed by anyone,” Mihelcic said.
The cost of the NSLDSS JCTD initiative is seemingly modest by military standards-about $4 million per year for three years. But if its potential is fully realized, the project will “significantly improve global situational awareness and decision quality by senior leaders, resulting in enhanced operational [effectiveness] of the DOD,” Mihelcic said.
Best Practices for Mashups
Best mashup practices
Airtight security is essential for any enterprise mashup system, particularly one used by the military. Not only must the data being correlated be accurate and free from tampering, but access to the critical decision-enabling information must be strictly limited to those military officers with a need to know.
DISA runs two Presto Enterprise Mashup Servers at its DECC (Defense Enterprise Computing Center) in Columbus, Ohio. One is accessible via the military’s SIPRNET (Secret Internet Protocol Router Network). To access the servers, users must authenticate themselves via the DOD PKI (public-key infrastructure). The other server is connected to NIPRNET (Nonsecure Internet Protocol Router Network), which carries sensitive but unclassified information. DISA is building a mirrored implementation at a second DECC to provide redundancy.
One of the key benefits of mashup technology is that is simple and intuitive enough for users to create unique data juxtapositions without much handholding. Even so, the DOD offers supplemental training in advanced mashup methods to personnel who require it.
Although a particular mashup may be useful to the person who created it, an enterprise stands to benefit when users share mashups with others who may have the need for similar information. Otherwise, users operating in isolation must reinvent the wheel by coming up with their own mashups individually.
DISA seeks to avoid this pitfall by relying on its enterprise collaboration tools to enable its users to show one another what they have created. Mashups created on the Presto Enterprise Mashup Server are available to all authenticated users, according to Mihelcic. The DOD uses commercially managed hosted collaboration services provided by IBM as well as Carahsoft Technology, an integrator of Adobe Acrobat Connect and Jabber presence and messaging software. The collaboration tools enable commanders to participate in classified real-time chat among themselves across SIPRNET and in unclassified discussions across NIPRNET.
DISAs Next Move
Although it may never be possible or even desirable to eliminate the human element from the conception and creation of mashups, DISA is seeking ways to streamline the process for greater efficiency.
“Lots of users are looking at lots of data and doing eyeball correlation. Ideally, we’d like to automate that,” said Mihelcic. “We’re looking at semantic Web technology and semantic search technology to automate these DSS tasks.” Semantic Web and semantic search technology would allow Presto Enterprise Mashup Server to discover and correlate information for decision makers automatically.
In one example, DISA’s EMF (Event Management Framework), a project that aims to enable the DOD to support civilian authorities during domestic emergencies, is utilizing semantic services to support its “Strategic Watch” capability. The EMF was created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina. Semantic search is also being implemented in the DIA’s Overwatch project, said Mihelcic.
In addition, DISA is exploring the integration of mashup technology with social media applications such as blogs and wikis. That move would be part of a larger initiative to implement an SOA (service-oriented architecture) to support Web services across the DOD’s networks.
Indeed, organizations that have implemented SOA are wise to leverage that investment by implementing mashup technology, which can mix and match data expressed as Web services. “Mashup platforms will be an invaluable tool [with which] to make use of the new services at the firm’s disposal and help justify the expense,” according to Forrester’s report.
The desire to integrate mashup technology with other tools echoes Gualtieri’s assertion that mashup technology won’t be used in isolation. The most useful tools will be those that integrate across a broad application development environment, the analyst said. To that end, JackBe offers connectors for Hewlett-Packard’s SOA Systinet environment, as well as for Oracle databases, Microsoft Excel, and BEA and Oracle enterprise portals.
For its part, DISA is well on its way to implementing what Mihelcic calls “a total environment for gathering, mashing up and visualizing data sources.” The result: data brought together in new relationships to enable better military decisions and assure a higher level of national security.
Stan Gibson is a technology writer in the Boston area and a regular contributor to eWEEK.