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U.S. military takes cloud computing to Afghanistan

Cloud computing hardware and software is being packed into mobile boxes to aid warfighters in the sky and on the ground.

By , Network World
September 23, 2010 11:54 AM ET

Network World - TAMPA -- The U.S. military is taking cloud computing into rugged terrain in Afghanistan, where according to Lt. Gen. Richard Zahner, the basic hardware and software technology is being packed into mobile boxes that later this year will start to play a key role in networking for soldiers in the sky and on the ground.

"We now have a government-owned cloud set," said Lt. Gen. Zahner during his keynote address at the Biometric Consortium Conference here. "We're leveraging cloud technology where it's needed."

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The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) makes use of private cloud computing in the United States for the benefit of the military, for instance in a data center run by HP. But this is the first time that military-run cloud computing has gone to Afghanistan, where warfighters in the field may depend on it for critical surveillance and decision-making information via secure networks. "The goal is to get precise and relevant information to the warfighter," Zahner said.

The military's mobile cloud computing nodes will be assembled from specially designed hardware (measuring about 2 by 2 by 2 feet) into a terrestrial IP-based network that will include 3G wireless and security (including biometrics) and will cover rugged areas of Afghanistan. Various edge nodes for brigades and battalions are expected to be deployed, including with airships that will remain airborne for extended numbers of days as nodes to support signals intelligence and video.

The new network capability, Zahner said, is designed with help from partners that include the National Security Agency  and based on open source components and commercial hardware. The cloud-computing deployment is expected to begin later this fall, though Zahner said there's a need to develop many applications to have it optimized.

Tom Dee, director of Defense Biometrics in the Department of Defense, said, "All of the components are in place [but] they're not woven together yet." He said the goal is to provide decision-support tools that are needed "to understand the identity of the person approaching you."

Biometrics abroad

The U.S. military has stretched to try many new types of technologies in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, especially fingerprint-based biometrics, as part of its mission to weed out insurgents and terrorists.

For instance, the military, spearheaded by the U.S. Special Operations Command, aggressively went about capturing fingerprints of Afghan and Iraqi residents suspected of building and setting off explosive devices and other activities.

The Biometrics Identity Management Agency (BIMA), a newly established Defense Department agency formed out of many years of task-force efforts, now keeps about 3 million fingerprints and other biometrics on file that are remotely searchable for a match.

The fingerprint-collecting work by the U.S. military -- though not yet supported with enthusiasm by NATO partners with privacy and other legal concerns -- has helped pin down terrorists who operate in Iraq and Afghanistan and possibly abroad as well. Fingerprints are sometimes taken from fragments of exploded devices and a search is made to find gangs creating them. Biometric fingerprint enrollment is supported by the Afghan government, however.

This week at the Biometric Consortium Conference, Col. Jose Smith spoke on the topic of how the fingerprint-enrollment process he has helped lead in Afghanistan is now shifting to training Afghans to enroll Afghans. He noted that fingerprint biometrics collection in Afghanistan has also gotten help from the FBI and Dept. of Justice in prison settings with 15,000 prisoners.

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