In May 2012, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced that it had balanced its budget for the first time in a decade, eliminating a £38bn deficit through savings and procurement changes, as well as redundancies. Part of the savings are coming through the Defence Core Network Service (DCNS) programme, which is completely reworking the way the British armed forces do ICT, with expected cost reductions of at least 40%.
"The DCNS programme is difficult to explain," says Commodore Jamie Hay, Royal Navy, who took over as its director at the start of the year. "It's both a change programme and an acquisition programme, and that has been hard for some heads to get around. This is putting in place a new way for the MoD to acquire ICT, because our current contracts are coming to an end. So I am enjoying myself because it is an opportunity to make a difference."
Given the precarious record of big business in implementing ICT projects on time and within budget, when the DCNS was designing its programme, it went to business majors, such as Rolls-Royce, Shell and Barclays, as well as other government departments, including the National Health Service, to learn about the pitfalls.
"Most large organisations are going on the same journey towards the next generation of how they do ICT," explains Hay. "I think it would be naive of me to suggest that we are going to be any different from them. Perhaps independently we are all coming to similar ways to address the risks, which are lateness, cost and not meeting user expectations."
Cost, integration and agility
The DCNS programme is being driven by three core considerations.
"The first is cost reduction," says Hay. "We have got to do things cheaply. Then we must have end-to-end integration, which means that we are going to actually deliver users simple things at the end, so they will not have to stitch them all together themselves. And thirdly, we want to be more agile, so that we can pull through innovation faster and deliver new services and capabilities quickly."
The better delivery of integrated services poses challenges, admits Hay. "If you consider the diagram of, for example, how we deliver a secure voice service from the permanent joint headquarters to, say, a headquarters in Afghanistan or a ship that is on deployment, it is remarkable that we get users on either end to communicate with each other," he says. "This is because the number of contracts and computing technical specifications that have to work together at the same time. It's pretty tricky."
No less of an issue is the future-proofing of systems.
"We want to be more agile because it is a marketplace where things move very quickly," says Hay. "And we want to take advantage of that. In Afghanistan, we found out how we can use off-the-shelf software, particularly from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), to pull things through."
Hay and his team identified four main causes for ICT failures: over-specification of technicalities has tied organisations contractually, which proves inappropriate in a fast-moving marketplace; poor business alignment has failed to ensure that IT is really going to enable the business - this can only be overcome with a clear architecture or, in military terms, concept of operations; the lack of senior buy-in and the right governance to ensure clear lines of authorised decision-making; and the lack of skills in terms of competence and the numbers required to deliver such a substantial project.
In this respect, says Hay, the DCNS has been fortunate that his team has doubled in the last six months. They have now completed what they call 'service definitions' and produced a catalogue in IT Infrastructure Language, which presents a service portfolio and specifies the subscriber domains where those services will be available.
"If you are going to have a secure voice service in fixed UK locations, then that is very different from having, say, a secure voice service in a forward operating base," he explains. "If you try to have a 20-site, high-quality videoed teleconference when you are in a frigate, the catalogue will say, 'I am afraid that the infrastructure is not going to support that'."
Having mapped all these major requirements, says Hays, when the DCNS goes to market for these services, it knows that nothing is going to fall through the cracks. His team is about to enter the assessment phase for Project Grapevine, which will replace the DII and DFTS.
"This will involve both functional and non-functional trade-offs, so that we live within our funding envelope," he says.
In December 2011, when the DCNS took its business case to the MoD Investment Approvals Committee, it was told that because of the risks involved, it needed to bring in a strategic partner to add the capabilities and experience that it lacked. Subject to MoD and Cabinet Office approval, the preferred bidder for that partnership will be announced in July 2012.
A core concept is that the risk in terms upgrading systems should be passed to the service providers.
"They will be driven by their own calculations as to when to do that as it will be more cost-effective for them to move to the new operating system rather than carry on supporting an old one," says Hay.
The cost-containment drive means that the DCNS will use the government's network of networks, the Public Service Network, for most of its connectivity. It will also take modules designed by other government departments, such as the End-User Device Framework for desktop management from HMRC and the Application Hosting Framework from the Ministry of Justice.
Hay says that service suppliers will have shorter contracts of between two and five years. SMEs will have real opportunity in niche applications. "At the moment, it is very difficult for them to break in because we have these very large, long contracts," he explains. "We are showing how we can do work with them with urgent operational requirements. Now we need to work with them on our main contracts as well."
Hay notes that there are huge user expectations for DCNS.
"However, it's not like a missile system or a warship, where the user is going to be delighted," he says. "In ICT, for some reason, the user always seems to have something better at home than they get at work. I certainly expect that where it makes a military difference to operations, they will be receiving something better."
This article was first published in our sister publication Defence & Security Systems International.