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EXCLUSIVE: Expert Shares Insights on Digital Transformation in the IoT Age

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Going step beyond IoT, digital transformation entails securely connecting devices and extracting data and insights critical for warfighter missions.

While the DoD and defense industry are playing close attention to the booming Internet of Things phenomenon, for the military the scoped has to focus beyond just devices (things). To serve the warfighter, a broader picture that encompasses both people and systems is necessary. With all that in mind, COTS Journal's Jeff Child had the opportunity to chat with Nick Michaelides, U.S. Federal Lead at Cisco Systems (Figure 1) to explore the issues and challenges of digital transformation and how advanced networking technologies are playing a key role.

Figure 1
Cisco Systems’ Nick Michaelides warns that as IoT-connected devices become engrained in military practices, security must become a built-in part of the digital transformation process.

Jeff Child, COTS Journal: Would you help me understand what exactly is "digital transformation" in comparison to the Internet of Things and how is it helping modernize federal organizations?

Nick Michaelides: The Internet of Things traditionally refers to an interconnected network of sensors and "smart" objects, with the purpose of allowing a programmatic interface and easier interaction with humans. Digital transformation, however, refers to connecting people and things so we can make sense of data in a meaningful and secure way. This increased focus on technology enabling the outcomes, rather than the technology alone, is the foundation and primary driver for helping organizations embark on their digital transformation journey. Digital transformation is helping modernize federal organizations by providing them with the means by which they can securely connect devices, extract data and insights and further drive the mission.

CJ: What are the critical technological challenges military organizations are facing today? Network bandwidth? Application delivery? Security monitoring?

Michaelides: With regards to embracing digital transformation, the DoD faces a variety of technological challenges that are unique to carrying out precise military operations. First and foremost, connectivity and security are major factors in choosing new technology systems, and things that have to be considered from every angle. Currently, there are a multitude of communication standards that exist within the DoD. Given the importance of reliable communications between operations rooms and the battlespace, agencies should constantly be considering how to securely connect and manage devices across a multitude of communication standards to keep our soldiers safe and prepared.

Data aggregation is another challenge that the military faces today due to the millions, even billions, of heterogeneous data sources that all simultaneously communicate. Collecting this data for retrospective analysis, while laborious, gives the DoD the potential to uncover temporal patterns that may otherwise remain hidden. Of course, this depends not only on the ability to bring in all this disparate data, but also the ability to analyze it out in the field and translate it into meaningful insights.

Achieving this real-time visibility across all devices is another obstacle for DoD agencies. By pushing analytics out to the edge, data can be analyzed in real time and transferred back to a central repository when additional bandwidth is available. Having the capability to perform data analysis in the field is critical because it enables self-sufficiency for warfighters that find themselves in situations where they can't connect to the central repository. Warfighters often require real-time information, whether it's about the geographical terrain in the area or analysis of adversary whereabouts. Accelerating the time for delivering intelligent insights to the warfighter is critical to the mission. Also, given the volume and diversity of data being collected, the DoD's ability to automate and manage the analysis and communication of information is essential. Defense and military agencies need to find ways to automate these processes to streamline operations and meet unique mission requirements.

CJ: Now for the big question: What specifically can digitizing the battlespace do to enhance military communications and operations?

Michaelides: Operationally, digitizing military facilities management across the DoD will result in substantial cost savings because the energy consumption currently measures in the billions. Implementing an IoT-enabled facility has the potential to significantly reduce costs and provide facility managers with continuous monitoring capabilities to ultimately give them a greater level of fidelity in implementing controls, rather than simply dimming lights.

For the warfighter, research is being done on wearable sensors that monitor the health of individual soldiers. Solutions like this address the fact that nearly 90 percent of battlespace deaths are preventable if a US Army surgeon gets to the injured soldier within one hour - often referred to as the 'golden hour.' To address this issue, experts have equipped medics' vests with a device that's wrapped in an Ultra Wide Band sleeve, connecting a blood oxygen sensor to the mobile device. The Army application then tracks data from the sensor and can tell a surgeon which soldier is going into shock so they can take action to respond appropriately.

Ultimately, both DoD employees and soldiers will reap the benefits from the digital transformation taking place. Whether it's in the DoD facilities, remote military base operations or out in the battlespace, digital technologies are delivering military personnel with more efficient ways to communicate with technology systems and with each other. For the DoD, having a reliable, secure communications foundation is not only mission critical, it can be the difference between life and death.

CJ: What are a few of the key, next-generation technologies that military organizations should be looking into to achieve modern, digital-ready operations?

Michaelides: Sensors are one of the major next-generation technologies for military personnel that will continue to rapidly evolve in the near future. LoRaWAN, or Long Range Wide Area Network, is a Low Power Wide Area Network specification intended for wireless battery operated devices. Leveraging this technology allows devices to shrink in size allowing soldiers to carry multiple such devices. Additionally, given the reduction in price and power consumption, new capabilities, such as connected vehicle applications (e.g. fleet management) and simple asset tracking are feasible.

As devices continue to proliferate, the data being collected will provide critical insight. Given the sheer volume and variety of data, manually capturing information through human involvement is not practical. Additionally, there are challenges presented by the lack of existing data format standards. As such, in order to truly drive successful outcomes and gather useful intelligence, a common data delivery platform is critical. A common data delivery platform should offer secure and scalable data transport in order to securely connect the millions of devices that are deployed, as well as transport the billions of messages via a highly scalable data pathway. Additionally, this should allow for flexible device connectivity through a variety of technologies. By providing the data in a common platform, processes can be automated, allowing for systems to react to data much faster than humans ever could.

CJ: Why is the digitization of military environments and processes more important now than ever before?

Michaelides: The DoD leadership recognizes the impact that IoT will have on the future of the department. As evidenced in the DISA Strategic Plan (2014-2019), "From improved logistics tracking, to optimized building security and environmental controls, to health monitoring of individual soldiers, the Internet of Things will impact everything we do."

The number of connected devices and things is growing extremely fast and like any other government agency or private organization, the DoD needs to take advantage of the opportunity by utilizing digitization and IoT-enabled technologies. Embracing digital transformation will support DoD communications across both unclassified and classified networks, and better enable military leaders to support troops in the field.

CJ: Security is obviously a big consideration for the military. How can military leaders balance the need for security, from the data center all the way out to endpoints in the field, with advancing digital objectives? What security capabilities are needed to meet today's changing environment?

Michaelides: With the evolution of digital transformation, the network edge is expanding out to devices and sensors. Given the lack of structure and form of the edge, no one solution alone can secure a network. Traditional network edge security mechanisms like firewalls and intrusion detection mechanisms are no longer sufficient to secure the entire network. Instead, security capabilities must be layered and protect holistically. For devices, such as smart phones, that have advanced capabilities, next-generation encryption technologies can allow for secure communications allows for real-time access to mission critical data.

Additionally, if a sensor/device is only permitted to transmit data (such as temperature readings) on one network, policies should be deployed and enforced such that it can't transmit to another network. Similarly, if a device is traditionally transmitting data, but suddenly starts receiving information, this behavior should drive an alert and request intervention. Given the number of devices that can be deployed, an automated approach to deployment and monitoring is critical, as human involvement won't be able to track any such anomalies in a practical timeframe.

Ultimately, agencies need to know there is no silver bullet for security. Military agencies should be looking for comprehensive solutions that provide increased visibility and real-time threat response capability, as well as the right foundation for establishing an enterprise security architecture. As IoT-connected devices become engrained in military practices, the potential attack surface widens and the risk for vulnerabilities increases. Nowadays, a modern environment requires security to be a built-in part of the digital transformation process.

CJ: Do you see certain digital technologies or capabilities becoming a requirement for military operations?

Michaelides: Digital technologies that can drive warfighter effectiveness through increased, real-time intelligence or by removing warfighters from harm's way will absolutely become requirements. Currently, unmanned aerial vehicles are providing live data streams of the battlefield, allowing for real-time decisions to be made around force deployment and logistics. As sensors are added to vehicles and warfighters, greater fidelity around the data and situations can be provided, allowing for more precise decisions. Additional telemetry can ensure that a vehicle in disrepair won't be sent out on a patrol, or that a soldier who needs medical attention will be appropriately triaged-all of which will ensure that our soldiers will come back home.

Cisco Systems
San Jose, CA