For the Department of Defense, enabling computers to recognize objects within an image using sophisticated algorithms has long been a top priority.
Known as Image Understanding, these algorithms can create a description of the world to help build battlefield awareness and improve target recognition for military personnel. However, when it came to sharing discoveries and data relating to Image Understanding, the DOD simply wasnt getting the picture.
At the crux of the problem was the DODs multifaceted research community. Composed of a wide array of both internal and external players, this community includes U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army and U.S. Navy personnel; Sandia National Labs; Lockheed Martin; Raytheon; Booz Allen Hamilton; Cal Tech; and New York University.
For years, these factions have been conducting research, tests and evaluations relating to a variety of disciplines, including Image Understanding technology and sensors-driven electronic warfare. But despite these sophisticated, high-tech pursuits, the DODs research community was years away from being able to share information.
In response, under the auspices of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the DOD launched the VDL (Virtual Distributed Laboratory). Created in 1996, the VDL is a Web-based repository that lets researchers talk about, share, store, search and retrieve research information—particularly data focused on Image Understanding.
Although run at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, the VDL is hosted and managed by General Dynamics, a Falls Church, Va., defense contractor, and is sponsored by the office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Science and Technology.
While the VDLs mandate was to encourage collaboration among disparate research groups, it didnt take long for obstacles to surface. For starters, the VDLs user base represents a diverse group of entities including DOD factions, academic institutions and corporate facilities.
All of these entities depend on a variety of platforms ranging from Windows to Linux, as well as a combination of open-source, government-developed and commercial applications. As a result, the VDL was hard-pressed to accommodate such a mixed bag of vendors, platforms and software packages.
For those who wished to pool their information with an outside entity, the only alternative was often regular mail—a lengthy process that included delivering research work to internal government departments, which would then forward the work on to external contractors.
“Unfortunately, in a lot of cases, [research groups] were FedExing CDs and tapes around. It was a very inefficient mechanism,” said Eric Baenen, a program manager for the Advanced Information Systems strategic business unit of General Dynamics.
E-mail proved to be no more productive. Given the confidential nature of the DOD research communitys work, any online exchange of information demanded adherence to strict encryption and privacy policies.
Unfortunately, said Baenen, “the technology for sending encrypted e-mail back and forth wasnt quite as user-friendly as it needed to be, while sending unencrypted e-mails was not an acceptable solution.” Whats more, many of the communitys external organizations had strict limitations on the size of e-mail attachments their servers could process, thereby preventing the receipt of large files.
Those entities that opted to avoid collaboration altogether also created their fair share of inefficiencies.
“The problem was, youd have lots of different people throughout the DOD collecting similar kinds of data,” said Baenen. The result was not only a collection of redundant research findings but a squandering of government money: “If people would have talked and pooled their research, we could have had much more efficient use of our funding,” Baenen said.
Because of General Dynamics role hosting and managing the VDL project, the company was also selected to serve as the DODs software integrator.
Finding an appropriate software solution, however, involved satisfying a long list of criteria. Among the DODs chief priorities was identifying software with strong authentication features, as well as point-to-point encryption capabilities, to meet DOD security requirements. Furthermore, because some external parties, such as academic institutions, are restricted from accessing certain projects and portions of research, the software would also have to feature fine-grain permission control and password protection technology.
But topping the DODs wish list was a Web-based document and file management system that would support open-source protocols.
-sharing solution thats all things for all people”>
“The research community is a very heterogeneous environment,” Baenen said. “We have users that are on everything from Windows machines to Macs to Solaris machines to Linux machines. We wanted to allow end users to continue to use the tools that they were accustomed to; the only way to do that was to focus on open standards.”
In addition to being open-standards-based and able to support cross-platform clients, the solution would have to accommodate a variety of Web browsers, including Netscape, Safari and MSIE; provide both application-based and Web-based user interfaces; and handle authentication via a Linux/Open LDAP-based server.
A secondary set of criteria included e-mail notifications of file status changes, the ability for users to access the application without having to install any new software on their desktops, and support for sites located behind at least one layer of firewall.
Such a tall order entailed an extensive search for the right solution. Over the course of three months beginning in April 2003, Baenen reviewed market surveys, conducted research, met with six prospective solutions providers and staged in-house trials of two solutions.
In the end, Baenen said that the most positive user feedback to the WebFile Server solution proved to be from Xythos Software in San Francisco. Xythos WFS is a content management platform that lets users manage and share documents, presentations, spreadsheets, reports, images and other types of files.
During a two-month evaluation period, a subset of DOD researchers quickly learned how to set their own file permissions and manage document version control with ease. As a result, in mid-September of 2003, the DOD completed its purchase of Xythos WFS, and only a couple of weeks later the system was fully operational.
At first, driving adoption of Xythos WFS posed a challenge, according to Baenen. He said time and education were crucial factors when it came to persuading the DODs multifaceted research community to try out the new solution.
Today, nearly 1,500 DOD research community members access Xythos WFS on a daily basis for document and file sharing. However, enabling such collaboration hasnt come cheap. Since 1996, the DOD has invested nearly $6 million in the VDL project, including equipment costs, software licensing fees and manpower expenses. Xythos software solution accounts for approximately $30,000 of that price.
But countless benefits help to offset these costs. For starters, by allowing users to upload and retrieve documents rather than having to FedEx them, Xythos WFS has helped cut mailing costs. A reduction in delivery lag times has tightened research development cycles. And researchers are now free to focus on core competencies rather than on stuffing envelopes.
“By using the centralized VDL system, the DOD is able to amortize its costs across many projects,” Baenen said. “With just a handful of staff, we can maintain the system to serve a larger user base and the projects dont have the expense of maintaining their own system.”
Today, the VDL project continues to serve an ever-expanding list of research projects. And as the DOD adds more programs, an increasing number of Xythos WFS end users are getting the picture on the importance of information sharing.
Cindy Waxer is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Contact her at [email protected].
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