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Commentary: Making the Cloud Work

Jan. 7, 2013 - 01:35PM   |  
By CHARLIE DOUGLAS   |   Comments
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U.S. military forces are among the best-trained, best-equipped in the world. But like many government programs, training budgets could be subject to spending freezes and even cutbacks as Congress and the administration work to contain record deficits. This might reduce the military’s ability to address pressing requirements, such as the need to sustain and train new war fighters, as well as those returning from overseas, or to update training systems to keep pace with evolving mission requirements.

Industry has the opportunity to help the military address these challenges by developing new, affordable training solutions based on data-driven technologies: cloud computing, mobile device delivery and big data analysis.

Together, these technologies can enable the military and industry to complement already-efficient training systems and improve learning. These technologies are still emerging, particularly for application in military training programs, so there are important technical, policy and security issues to resolve. Nevertheless, the development of these technologies is proceeding so rapidly, and their potential value is so large, that we see their use in training programs increasing significantly over the next 12 months.

Expanded Training

The Obama administration’s Cloud First initiative calls for agencies to accelerate the transition of applications and services to centralized data centers in the cloud. Military training programs can take advantage of cloud computing by moving training software hosted on individual computers and servers to cloud servers, allowing trainees to access programs remotely.

Training programs would reap many of the same benefits from cloud computing that other federal agencies do: reducing costs, increasing efficiency.

There are several examples of this. Using the cloud would mean the military would not have to acquire client-based training software and hardware. Travel costs would shrink because more soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines could train at their home stations rather than visiting simulation centers. Updating training programs would become less expensive because military personnel would only have to provision the updated software via the cloud, rather than in multiple servers and computers scattered throughout the country. With the military likely to rely on multiple block upgrades to modernize weapons, this is a cost-effective measure for the coming years.

Cloud-based training is most appropriate for computer-based interactive multimedia instruction, or IMI, ranging from passive learning to various types of interactive learning. Instructional programs, such as changing tires on an Army vehicle, maintaining an Air Force aircraft engine or operating a sophisticated Navy radar system, could be delivered effectively through the cloud.

The cloud, however, is not ready to support the full range of training programs. Network and latency issues reduce response times, which would preclude using cloud computing for more complex interactive training programs. These technical issues would need to be solved before trainers could move programs that require tactile response, such as maneuvering a tank or flying an aircraft, onto the cloud. Nevertheless, a large portion of basic IMI, including maintenance and repair, leadership training, tactics and other skills, would be suitable for a cloud environment.

In addition to providing cost savings, cloud computing could improve training in several ways. Through the cloud, instructors can reach more trainees, track the learning and progress of individuals, and provide specialized instruction targeted to specific needs. Also, because a training program only has to be updated once at the cloud location, instructors can know that everyone using the program will have immediate access to the latest training tools and, equally important, they will have the same information to meet mission requirements.

Mobile Devices and Big Data

Cloud storage also allows mobile devices, such as the iPad and other tablets, to deliver training applications remotely.

There are limits to the types of training that can be presented on mobile devices rather than their wired brethren, such as increased connectivity and latency issues, potential computing power and small screen size. However, the ability to access the cloud and train anywhere, particularly in forward-deployed areas, would provide benefits. Training programs designed for mobile devices could provide refresher courses in maintenance and repair, among other areas. Troops could download courses or manuals to address specific needs and receive updated training courses quickly, ensuring they always have the latest version. Security is an important challenge for using mobile devices, but the benefits of untying training from home stations to enable continuous training are too compelling to ignore.

Cloud-based training would also let the services exploit big data tools and analytics to improve learning. With training software stored on centralized cloud servers, rather than computers spread throughout the country, the military would have ready access to data generated by training sessions.

Trainers could analyze data to determine the specific training programs and conditions that generate the fastest learning, longest retention, syllabus shortfalls or areas needing more focus. This valuable analytical feedback would enable the services to focus limited training resources on the most effective programs and would guide the future development and design of even better training programs.

Shifting to the Cloud

The recently released “Department of Defense Mobile Device Strategy” provides a good foundation for addressing latency, security, and other issues, such as developing policies, standards and an architecture for secure mobile computing, as well as for expanding wireless networks to handle high-bandwidth traffic. Industry can help the military by developing needed solutions, such as security controls to ensure that only authorized users can access the networks and servers housing cloud-based training programs.

With regard to cloud computing security, the military also must address and comply with U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations restrictions governing the import and export of defense-related hardware and services. Cloud-hosting service offerings will need to ensure data and software are not housed in servers at locations prohibited by ITAR. Industry and the military are still examining the types of controls needed to ensure compliance with ITAR.

A key challenge for industry is developing an effective business model for delivering training services via the cloud. Delivering training as a utility or service is vastly different from selling client-based software and hardware products, and so industry must design licensing and pricing schemes that deliver value to the military while also supporting business innovation and growth. Consequently, industry will have to continue looking internally to determine the best ways to deliver secure cloud offerings to its customers. The challenge is finding creative ways that are also budget friendly. It’s incumbent upon us to develop innovative yet realistic ways to ensure training services are easily deliverable and accessible through the cloud.

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Charlie Douglas is the vice president of modeling and simulation for QinetiQ North America.

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