Sophisticated communications are a fundamental tool for modern battlefield troops. But one side effect of technology’s growing role is the fact that batteries carried by U.S. Marine Corps IT troops to operate radios in tactical environments have grown in weight by more than 1,000 percent since 9/11.
Lightening that load on combat soldiers is one of the many challenges facing Brig. Gen. Kevin Nally, who is director of command, control, communications and computers (C4) for the U.S. Marine Corps, as well as the deputy CIO for the Department of the Navy and deputy commanding general of Marine Forces Cyber Command.
Nally’s boss, Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, set an energy-efficiency vision in place several years ago. So Nally has sought innovative ways to ensure that Marines in the field can meet energy requirements even as demands increase.
One part of the solution is the Ground Renewable Expeditionary Energy System (GREENS), a portable photovoltaic and battery hybrid system developed for Marines in remote locations. Thanks to GREENS, Marines in Afghanistan now have solar panel systems to power generators and portable batteries, eliminating the need for dangerous battery resupply missions in combat areas. Marines have fewer batteries to carry, so their gear loads are lighter, and they have room for more ammunition, food, water and clothing.
“Our generators are now being powered with solar panels, and that means no fuel resupplies. It saves lives and fuel delivery costs,” Nally said. “They also don’t need generator mechanics, which lightens the tactical footprint. The forward operating bases are quieter at night because you’re not running the generator on diesel fuel or JP8 [jet fuel].”
A High-Level Perspective
Of course, Nally’s duties extend beyond overseeing energy efficiency. As the Marine Corps CIO, he defines and develops appropriate terms and conditions for buying the hardware and software that will connect to the Marine Corps’ enterprise network. And he’s in charge of securing the network anywhere Marines operate, whether it’s a remote unit in Afghanistan or a domestic desktop in an office back home in the United States.
Nally’s office worked with Marine Corps Systems Command and Department of Defense CIO Teri Takai’s office to create a purchasing program for the Navy’s IT equipment. Hewlett-Packard replaces non-Navy Marine Corps intranet hardware and software under the Common Hardware Suite program, so the company handles the transaction if a Navy computer breaks down in the U.S.
But the Marine Corps retains direct control over military equipment in the field, so if a computer breaks down in a mission zone overseas, the Marines remediate that problem directly and likely more quickly than a third-party provider would.
“We do that because of security reasons, because we know we can provide the best security for our networks,” he said. “If the Marines need help with their network or their computers, we provide it faster and more responsively.”
Nally’s currently implementing a data standardization practice to ensure that machines and systems in his network exchange data more easily. He wants to reduce data dependency so personnel can share and access information without too many headaches, whether they’re aboard ship or on shore.
“Anonymity, I think, needs to be eliminated for mission-related, sensitive data applications,” he said. “It must be interlinked when you do a search, a query, compile information or turn it into something usable. Across all our programs, we need better standardization.”
Unfortunately, establishing common data sets across such a vast military enterprise may take longer than Nally would like. Yet he’s accepted the fact that his job comes with unavoidable hurdles, like the time required to get things done, but it’s tough.
“When I need something done, I like it done yesterday,” Nally said.
Wading Through Fog
Nally also started migrating applications and programs to the Marine Corps Enterprise IT Services Center (MCEITS), a hosted computing environment that’s the centerpiece of the Marines’ data center service consolidation strategy.
But don’t call it a cloud. He jokingly coined the phrase “fog computing” last fall after he became fed up with using “cloud computing” as a label for hosted services. He found the term nebulous and confusing, so he had fun with it.
“I stood outside the Pentagon one day and it was a really foggy day with my CTO, Mr. Dave Green, and I said, ‘You know, I’m really sick of the term ‘cloud computing’ because I go to meetings and get different definitions of cloud.’”
His solution? Just call it a fog. After all, fog is close to the ground, unlike clouds, so people can touch it, just like how people can touch computers in a hosted environment. Apparently the name is catching on.
“I’m going into the DISA [Defense Information Systems Agency] headquarters at Fort Meade and two people said, ‘This fog computing effort, can you explain what this is all about?’ And I said, ‘Right now, it’s a Marine Corps secret. That’s about all I can tell you.’”
Past and Present Achievements
Nally said his current job is the most fascinating and frustrating of his career. But he comes to the CIO post with a wide range of leadership experience. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps in 1981 after graduating from Eastern Kentucky University with a bachelor of science in agronomy and natural resources. Nally spent the 1980s rising through military ranks and beginning IT training, and in 1989, he served as the communications platoon commander in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He held various military positions and received additional IT training over the next two decades, including serving as the commanding officer of the Marine Corps Communication-Electronics School.
Nally came back from his experiences with several honors, including the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit with one gold star, the Navy-Marine Corps Commendation Medal with three gold stars, and the Combat Action Ribbon.
He also developed a keen appreciation for the people he works with. “I am blessed with a lot of very intelligent and experienced people that make me look smarter than I am,” he said. “I always put people first, and I try to treat others more importantly than myself, and I think if you do that then people will kind of habitually want to work for you to get the job done.”
As for the future, Nally points to three goals as his legacy. “Whenever I leave this job, I want people to feel good that they were able to work for us; I want a successful transition out of the Navy Marine Corps Intranet into our government-owned, government-operated network; and I want to see MCEITS continually grow.”
-- By Hilton Collins