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04 16 2019

NATO and industry co-create modern architecture for deployable system

The NCI Agency is building its future Deployable Communications and Information System on the "DCIS Cube" effort, with industry's help.

Last year the NATO Communications and Information Agency worked with 12 industry partners in a completely new way.

The Agency wanted to improve NATO's Deployable Communications and Information System (DCIS) by using industry best-practice early, well before writing a statement of work. Agency staff did that by involving industry-leading architects in architecting and testing a new approach for a modern DCIS: the DCIS Cube, a deployable mini datacentre.

And it worked. So well, in fact, that the Agency is planning to work with an even larger group of companies this year on other aspects of the DCIS.

Through workshops and architectural demonstrations, the NCI Agency and representatives from the 12 companies worked together to draft an architecture, which is like a technical blueprint, for the DCIS. Last May they published a whitepaper outlining that architecture, which they called the DCIS Cube.

Through this approach, initiated by Service Engineering and Architecture Branch of the Agency, the idea of collaborating with Industry to architect common and reusable building blocks materialized. The effort was also supported by architects from other service lines in the Agency.

Now the Agency can procure DCIS kits based on the latest commercial industry best practices. And through the process of developing the architecture, companies were able to get a better understanding of NATO's needs, said NCI Agency Enterprise Architect Dr Hermann Wietgrefe.

"We get confirmation that our concepts can be met with state-of-the-art technology," Wietgrefe said. "And industry gets an advance understanding of what our requirements are, and is therefore better tuned to assess how this should influence their portfolio."

A modern DCIS

When NATO units deploy they carry the technology they use to communicate, the DCIS, along with them.

The DCIS capability consists of a static portion, located in NATO data centres, and deployable points of presence. The Information and Communications Technology (ICT) portion of a deployable point of presence is basically a transportable mini datacentre. The DCIS implementation in service today comes in boxes of different sizes and weights, and not all of them can be carried easily. Some of them weigh as much as 150 kilograms.

So what NATO needs is one standardized box that is easy to carry and replace. The new DCIS Cube is a blueprint for just that.

"The crucial element of the DCIS Cube is that it's supposed to be more agile in all the ways that you can understand it," said Marc Van Selm, an Enterprise Architect focusing on communications architecture. "It's supposed to reduce the logistical footprint, it's supposed to support a quick deployment. It should be lower cost, simpler to operate. And it is open to NATO and Nations and industry to use, or reuse or adapt."

Instead of having boxes of varying sizes and weights that can serve as different parts of a communications system, the DCIS Cube calls for one common box that can be programmed to serve those different purposes. That also means NATO forces would only need to carry a single box of spare parts with them to repair what breaks, Van Selm said.

"Instead of having a shelter full of spare parts, now you bring along a box along of 60 cm in square," Van Selm said. "And that can replace any of the components that could fail."

The DCIS Cube can be carried by two people, making it a great fit for deployments. It gets its functionality by putting software on it, and it can be programmed automatically in a matter of hours, or a day at most. That time depends on the service complexity of the headquarters, and number of DCIS Cubes that need to be aggregated to deliver the services.

The Agency intends to use the architecture developed with industry in upcoming procurements, but there isn't a specific project called the "DCIS Cube." The Agency expects to get around 30 Cubes from a larger infrastructure contract known as the Firefly project. The contract award is planned for 2019.

Several companies collaborated with NATO on developing the architecture for the DCIS at their own expense, with lead architects, solution engineers and proof-of-concept prototypes.

It was agreed that the main product, the whitepaper, be made available to everyone online for use and reuse. There is also a DCIS Cube Architecture Definition Document that the NCI Agency can make available to Nations and companies upon request. The DCIS Cube architectural concepts are Intellectual Property Rights-free and openly available to ensure that the International Competitive Biddings principles are respected.

"Basically the industry that participated in the architecture development have a chance to also see implementations from the Nations following the same principles," Wietgrefe said. "They have a multiplier of opportunity by us publishing this as a NATO standard way of doing things."

NATO and industry co-create modern architecture for deployable system

Collaborating on DCIS Cube 2.0

Twenty-Five companies are expected to participate in DCIS Cube 2.0, the next round of related initiatives. The Agency has already held the first two architecture meetings for DCIS Cube 2.0. The Agency, with industry, hosts one DCIS Cube-related workshop a month on average.

The Agency plans to update the public on these efforts at its annual industry conference NITEC, which will be held in Oslo in May.

For the first DCIS Cube architecting initiative, a company or small group of companies would build a prototype and take it to the Agency lab in The Hague. There they tested and validated key aspects of the architecture with real systems. Their goal was to prove that what they described on paper functioned with a real kit.

The Agency has four focus areas it is exploring in DCIS Cube 2.0. For example, through "connecting the Cube," the Agency wants to take a closer look at the Wide Area Network, the satellite link that connects a deployment to different commands.

"This time we're going to look there, see what we can do to improve our satellite connectivity," Van Selm said.

DCIS Cube 2.0 will also look at using the Software Factory as a collaboration space to manage the services run on the DCIS Cube.

As a part of its Software Factory effort, the NCI Agency is piloting a new way to work with the fast-paced tech companies developing NATO's software. The DevTest Platform, as it is called, offers companies a chance to quickly get feedback on what they are developing.

For DCIS Cube 2.0, the Agency intends to bring that collaborative and agile requirements management approach to the way it manages services run on the Cube. Then the Agency will be bringing best practices from software development to how it develops, tests and deploys ICT services in this context.

Learn more about the DevTest Platform here.

And to register for our flagship industry conference, please visit the NITEC website.