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Air Force uses event-driven framework and SOA to support warfighters

The Air Force is using SOA to improve data sharing and track aircraft in real time. Michael Marek of Air Mobility Command explains what businesses can learn from their experience.

The Air Force is taking SOA to the skies, and the experience they have had implementing this architecture holds valuable lessons for today's application-heavy enterprises.

Since 2004, Michael Marek, chief of the technology integration division, headquarters Air Mobility Command, directorate of communications, has been working with his team of 25 developers to improve efficiencies around the transfer of data across the Air Force and with those it conducts missions with using an event-driven framework. One result of these efforts, the User Defined Operation Picture (UDOP), is a tool that enables mission planners to see computer-based visualizations of aircraft locations and environmental threats in near-real time using immense amounts of data.

"It's about getting what the warfighter needs when the warfighter needs it in terms of airlift, getting troops to the front lines where they need to be," Marek said. "It's about operational effectiveness and operational utility."

In this Q&A, Marek talked about how his team is leveraging SOA and an event-driven framework effectively, their approach to development and what business leaders can learn from what they have accomplished.

Why did you start this project?

Marek: We were looking at it to solve a specific problem with sharing data with other mission partners. We have since expanded that to include more and more use cases and more mission partners.

Where we used to have equipment and people in place in different parts of the world to perform specific functions, we leveraged the SOA technology to share that information and eliminate the need to deploy people and equipment into specific places of the world.

The UDOP is certainly leveraging the technology that we've implemented. This is actually a different use case from what we originally started out with, but it shows you the capability that you generate once you expose information and make it available for consumption -- you can apply it to other use cases.

Are you mainframe-based? Or are you leveraging virtualization and cloud?

Marek: We do have a system that uses mainframe, but by and large, we're in a server-based environment. We're implementing virtual capabilities, virtual servers [including virtualized] database servers. In our application servers, we pretty much virtualize those where we can. Our goal is to move to a cloud-ready state to achieve the directives that we've been given from the DOD [Department of Defense] to move to the cloud as much as possible.

What is your most important goal?                                                                          

The whole SOA event-driven framework is really an implementation of the operational business rules.
Michael Marek

Marek: The primary reason is really to expose information that's kind of "stove piped" in all our legacy systems and make that available [while also] protecting it from our adversaries. We're moving into the SOA environment precisely for that reason. Most of the legacy systems ... were built on a client-server framework. ... Data is kind of bottled up in those databases. And with the SOA middleware layer, we're exposing that data and making it available to other users without building custom interfaces that pretty quickly become expensive to manage.

The success of [these] money-saving and time-saving innovations is critical to the Air Force's ability to operate, particularly in a fiscally constrained environment. We can show case after case of reuse of the SOA environment where we've been able to transition quickly to another operational need, make connections and make data available very rapidly.

What specific challenges does working in a military setting impose on this initiative?

Marek: One of those is, as you can imagine, cybersecurity requirements. Certain types of information limit our ability to fully adopt commercial practices and software. This can extend delivery times if we need to modify commercial software.

I [also] talked about needing to refactor systems. These systems all "grew up" in the environment that they were built in, ... so we're looking to see if there is any redundant capability between all the different systems.

Part of what we have to do is be adaptable to change, and so we're using the SOA environment to more rapidly fuse information. [This] is where UDOP comes in, because that tool allows you to pull information from a variety of sources and fuse it into a geographic display to give you a situational awareness. If you have information that's readily available to do that using a SOA infrastructure, then you can do that for a little cost.

What is your development approach?

Marek: For the SOA and the apps that we're building, we're using Agile. ... The legacy applications that have been around for a while, they're using Waterfall. But they're starting to try to adapt some Agile methods ... to try to get the applications out the door faster.

One of the things that we like about Agile is that our customers and our users are directly involved in the development process. So they can provide course corrections as we interpret requirements and make sure that when the application goes out the door, it actually meets the operator's requirements.

What lessons can businesses learn from your experience?

Marek: It's really no different than what a typical business flow experiences. Sometimes you end up having to take a step or two backward and relook where you started and where you're going to make sure you're lining up with what the business needs.

One of the biggest things we've come to learn about SOA ... [is] that it can reduce cost when you reuse services. The other thing that it does for us -- particularly in our event-driven environment -- is it allows us to look at the technology from a business perspective rather than from a technical side. The whole SOA event-driven framework is really an implementation of the operational business rules. That's been the greatest thing that we've learned about it: It's really not about the technology, it's about the business and the data.

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