Introduction
Since its inception in 2004, the Network Centric Operations Industry Consortium (NCOIC) has been a leading organization in promoting the value of interoperability across operational domains. Minimum Level InteroperabilityBuilding on network centric operations (NCO)1 concepts proposed for the military at the turn of the century and leveraging the value gained from effects-based operations (EBO)2, NCOIC has advocated the importance of including interoperability as a required condition in every complex problem/solution analysis for all organizations.

Interoperability has become a necessity for any organization operating on the network since it improves information sharing, which enhances situational awareness and leads to better decisions and faster responses.3 As important as interoperability has become, there are still many organizations that choose not to be completely interoperable. But how much interoperability is enough? This paper introduces Minimum Level of Interoperability as a conceptual approach to achieving the basic capability needed for a particular task or mission.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines interoperability as the “ability of a system to work with or use the parts or equipment of another system” (first use in 1965). Google and Bing search engines deliver the following definitions of interoperability: the ability of computer systems or software to exchange and make use of information (interoperability between devices made by different manufacturers); and the ability of groups to operate in conjunction with each other (staff believe interoperability between forces is crucial to effectiveness). In each case, the key concepts are the ability to work with or use parts of another system, and the ability of equipment or groups of people to operate in conjunction with each other.

For this paper, interoperability is a characteristic that denotes the capability to exchange and/or share information. This allows for the inclusion of human operators and automated systems, including intelligent agents (i.e., bots and robots acting as the sources and recipients of information).

Levels of Interoperability
The term “level” is frequently used in characterizing interoperability. It denotes degrees of completeness, sophistication and complexity, with higher levels associated with greater intellectual exchange. Two examples of interoperability hierarchies are Levels of Information Systems Interoperability (LISI) developed by MITRE4 and interoperability characterization known as Levels of Information Interoperability for Network Centric Operations (LIINCO) developed by Boeing and licensed to NCOIC. The NCOIC technical team, led by Thomas Bui, Ph.D., of Boeing, identified key elements needed for systems-of-systems interoperability, potential solutions and a hierarchical concept. This effort resulted in a process used by Boeing for characterizing the appropriate interoperability level for a given platform based on its intended role in the planned network centric environment. Using the LIINCO framework, interoperability requirements were mapped into five levels of increasing capability. This work led to frequent discussions regarding how much interoperability is needed and what is the minimum level one must have to participate.

Minimum Level of Interoperability
It is more correct to think of the minimum level of interoperability (MLI) as a threshold (i.e., from the perspective of defining/describing the minimum interoperability needed to get information successfully moved from Point A to Point B). This perspective was first characterized circa 2004 by Marshall (Tip) Slater, a senior executive at Boeing. Slater was responsible for planning and executing the first steps in creating a virtual organization that would operate from multiple and geographically dispersed locations and be connected by a system of communication networks. The business “use case” for this network centric organization was the development and delivery of product demonstrations involving live, virtual and constructive elements operating from multiple and geographically separated production sites. Delivery of the finished business unit product-demonstration and operator (role-playing) interactions were carried out over the open worldwide Internet and presented to the customer/audience at a designated international location of their choice -- literally “across the globe” from the production sites.

The MLI described here is not a level of achievement in the expected technical sense, with specified bandwidth and throughput capacity values. More correctly, the MLI needed represents a starting point (i.e., the threshold capability level that must be in place to claim interoperability as an operational attribute). The MLI concept evolved out of the necessity to answer the question: What is it that we must develop or assemble to make it work and perform the international demonstration? After consultation with Dr. Bui and the NCOIC technical team, the answer boiled down to satisfying three critical needs.

To claim interoperability, you must: 1) be able to communicate with others; 2) be able to digitize the data/information to be shared; and 3) be recognizable/registered (i.e., you must have some form of credentials verifying both senders and receivers on the network as authorized participants with specific roles).
Simply stated, for MLI, you must be able to communicate, digitize and register. But there is considerable detail needed in completing the paths through these three requirement areas. And the execution process applies for each interoperability level defined for the intended system.

  • Communicate
    • Able to find and join the network; this requires compatible, physical communications capability and access to the correct network(s)
    • Able to discover, acquire and communicate (send and receive) with other compatible participants acting as both information sources and recipients
    • Able to secure the physical transmission of information
  • Digitize
    • Network centric operations require all data to be in the binary (0,1) digital format.
    • Information received from analog sensors must be converted (digitized) into the digital format required for network communications traveling at near the speed of light.
    • Ensuring the authenticity of readable, recognizable and uncompromised data/information must be part of the digitization process and methodology used at all nodes on the network.
  • Register
    • Entities must identify themselves through a process or service that provides confidence regarding their authenticity and authorization to send/receive and produce/modify data.
    • Entities must adopt and share a common governance policy and methods for authorizing and documenting the exchange of information and actions taken, and a way for determining who’s who in the network.
    • Managing registration in a rapidly expanding, federated environment will always be a challenging problem as the number of nodes participating multiplies; fortunately, many new ways for doing this are evolving.

Implementation
The challenge for those responsible for implementing an interoperable solution is that they are not the sole authority or ultimate decision maker; their success will depend on the social interoperability and cooperation of others in a federated environment; the decisions made must have the endorsement of all participants in the group or interoperability fails.

The program manager must put in place the process and capability to identify and define what’s needed to complete the information transfer path, work through the three MLI key areas (communication, digitization and registration) and overcome any obstacles to integration identified in the NCOIC paper describing the NCOIC QuadTrangle™.5

QuadTrangle

The program team will need to complete a thorough analysis of the mission objective, working environment, participating parties and all proposed alternative solutions, including existing capabilities and available resources, to determine:

  • Is everyone on the same network or are multiple networks using different transmission mediums necessary to span the geographical areas? Are there appropriate gateways and transformers in place to connect all participants?
  • Is everyone using the same methodology for digitizing data and sharing information? Or is there confusion caused by use of different forms, semantics and languages?
  • How many different registration processes and methodologies are being used to address the most challenging and critical issue? Operators in the network must be able to know and trust each other and have the security needed to provide appropriate protection of the information shared.
  • What are the minimum conditions necessary to be able to interoperate with others at each of the designated levels, zones or degrees? What is the interoperability starting point that every participant must achieve before they can claim interoperability at their designated position and role in the operational environment?

Success in applying the MLI concept to achieve interoperability will be directly proportional to how well the final choice of alternatives measures up in satisfying the four keystone interoperability dimensions identified in the NCOIC QuadTrangle™.

By Edward L. Barger
NCOIC Technical Director

References

______________________________

1 Alberts, David, Garstka, John, and Stein, Frederick, Network Centric Warfare, Developing and Leveraging Information Superiority. Washington, DC; CCRP. 2000, 2nd Ed. Revised
www.dodccrp.org/files/Alberts_NCW.pdf
2 Smith, Edward Allen, 1946-. Effects Based Operations: Applying Network Centric Warfare in Peace, Crisis, and War   - Air University  www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/ccrp/ebo_smith.pdf

3 Network-centric warfare – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Network-centric warfare, now commonly called Network-centric operations;  Developing and Leveraging Information Superiority.

4 Measuring Systems Interoperability - Software Engineering Institute
https://www.sei.cmu.edu/library/assets/measuring-systems-interoperability.pdf  Levels of Information Systems Interoperability (LISI) is a reference model and process for assessing information systems' interoperability. It provides a discipline for defining, measuring, assessing, and certifying the degree of interoperability required or achieved between systems.

5 NCOIC QuadTrangle™ The Four Interdependent Dimensions of Cross-Domain Interoperability
https://www.ncoic.org/about-us/ncoic-difference/ncoic-quadtrangle

Marshall

By Marshall "Tip" Slater
Chief Financial Officer
Network Centric Operations Industry Consortium

This missive is a combination of ideas that have been presented to me in a number of settings. First through working in industry, then the thought group Network Centric Operations Industry Consortium (NCOIC), and finally the government customers who have discussed their most pressing problems.

The concept I’m presenting is an approach for implementing interoperability of products and services in multiple marketplaces.

All grand ideas (and global interoperability is a grand idea) need to have a viable path to implementation. Today, while the idea of achieving real interoperability is grand, the implementation is fractured at best and sabotaged at worst. As a result, projects become cost sinks resulting in gigantic stove pipes, large enough that individuals and groups believe they’ve already achieved the grand vision.

The reality of its incompleteness becomes exposed during disasters when designated emergency services are rendered helpless because their supplies are elsewhere; where citizens become the emergency service providers because they have truly interoperable devices built for daily use; and interoperability needed beforehand becomes its own disaster afterwards.

Managing interoperability has many components. This story illustrates a real-world use case of overcoming the hurdles that prevent interoperable solutions.

I had the opportunity to manage several industry facilities and the high-speed network that integrated them as well as peer organizations. The facilities presented and tested live, virtual and constructive (LVC) simulations where the LVC players were in the USA, parts of Europe, and the Middle-East. This integration was presented to viewers in other locations as well.

Live Virtual Constructive

Live were real people and equipment such as F-16 fighter jets, Virtual components were simulators with people inside such as airborne radar aircraft, and Constructive were computer simulations of additional forces, adversary, friendly and neutral. The computer simulations included terrain, and the effects of natural disasters

Integrating these capabilities primarily among three main sites and secondarily to/with smaller customer sites required a high degree of interoperability, not only at the physical technical level, but also at the organizational procedural level.

Huge investments were made in the brick and mortar facilities, and as small amounts of capability were added the complexity increased multifold. As the senior manager, I discovered that the operation was beginning to diverge instead of converging. The operation became more difficult as increased capabilities were added. Man-hours skyrocketed every time we added a facility that was not a standard part of our operation. Management became increasingly difficult to achieve while the demand for quality results became a serious challenge.

Nevertheless, I was extremely fortunate that additional resources became available. The first was the company’s internal Organizational Development group, whose role it was to study and evaluate organizations from various perspectives (i.e. operations, personnel) and provide the management team an outside objective look at his or her organization. The second was a newly formed non-profit organization – the NCOIC, an organization designed to study interoperability, its technical capability and those surrounding factors that enabled its implementation. It is a truly global and diverse thought group

So, as my organization found itself maxed out implementing two facilities that were diverging, the team was also requested to add both more company and non-company facilities to the environment. A critical point had been reached where I felt existing effort simply wasn’t sufficient to make things work. So, I requested the help of the above mentioned internal Organizational Development (OD) group.

Three months of study by the OD produced an evaluation that was surprising at first glance, but, then made perfect sense upon further consideration. My demand for the facilities to interoperate at a moment’s notice was not a high priority for my managers. The facilities, fully managed by my subordinate managers, had complete control of the operations, acquisition and processes. They worked for me on paper; but, as I discovered from the study, the senior VPs in each local area had more influence than I did. All the facilities and managers responded to the same external forces. As it turned out, I (considered a “hard ass”) wasn't really in charge at all.

Minimum Levels Interoperability

Knowing the VPs had the political clout as well as influence over the budget, I needed to meet their needs and still achieve interoperability and reduce effort required to make this LVC world come to life. Subsequently I turned to the NCOIC.

The first thing the NCOIC taught me was to realize that there are minimums that have to be respected. Minimum Level of Interoperability (MLI) had to be understood as a basic before any other step was taken. The NCOIC MLI simply stated that information had to be digitized, communication established, and finally a registration set-up implemented.

The next knowledge point the NCOIC provided was the QuadTrangle™, which was in fact in development at the time though the rationale and thoughts hadn’t been as quantified as it is now. However, the basic concept was present and stated that although technology is foundational, there are three other critical factors that impact interoperability. Culture is the first and probably the hardest to overcome. Business Value, whereby the monetary gains and losses will prevail regardless of the organization is second, and finally Governance – rules, regulations and laws. Some can be addressed or changed to facilitate interoperability, but many must be adhered to regardless of the impact. The result is that once everything is put into the mix, technology is the most flexible, yet it is the point at which most organizations start their projects.

QuadTrangle

The final piece I needed in order to address the organizational issues was the NCOIC Management Model. Again, this was in the concept phase and later used as a foundation that advised a newly formed NATO acquisition organization to successfully develop. The Management Model stated that the foundation of the interoperability process needs to be generic and the application level unique. The Management Model emphasized that using MLI allows your network to be developed as the foundation. The next step is to make sure the equipment is interoperable across the organization, and finally that the middleware supports each organization’s applications and needs.

Taking lessons learned from the internal organizational study, I restructured my organization. Understanding the VPs would have a large say in approval or disapproval, I placed an individual whom the VPs trusted in charge of the facility presentations and abstractly the facilities. Then a new organization was created that assumed control over all the equipment, budget and design. No facility could ever again develop separately within this realm. Finally, the network became an organization that operated in support of the facilities, both ours and others, independent and with two objectives -- security and continuous connectivity.

The NCOIC provided the MLI, the QuadTrangle™ keystone dimensions and the implementation Management Model. The Organizational Development team provided the problem to be solved. These critical organizational changes allowed us to generate arguably the finest worldwide LVC capability that has been created to date.

By the way, manpower never rose, man hours stayed constant, and cost per LVC event dropped from $7 million per event to less than $700 thousand per event. The NCOIC was seen as a thought leader and really had the implementation tools that were used to change business models and provide direction to the world-wide interoperability desired, and yet the global challenge of crossing domains other than the unique but complex LVC environment still had to be addressed.

At this point several government customer sets approached the NCOIC. Their points boiled down to “why can’t I purchase predetermined interoperable products and services?” Their idea was that multiple domains should be able to interoperate. Right now, each domain attempts to achieve interoperability within the domain. However, at the multinational level where lives are the commodity and speed the solution, the uniqueness of each domain was literally killing people.

Interoperability VerifiedThe NCOIC has since worked the problem with the customers and has over five years’ experience in addressing the possible solution to this pre-acquisition problem. Interoperability Verification (IV), a concept now in the initial stages of development, is designed to provide a risk assessment of products and services interoperability capability. Tools have been designed and/or purchased, and testing is in development and that will eventually provide lists of IV products and services.

For the first time, the possibility of interoperable domains is not only possible, but likely. Manufacturers will need to build to environments that belong to the customers, not the manufacturers. New solutions will become possible and the ultimate objective of saving lives and making societies beneficial to all becomes a reality.

Related: Cross-Domain Interoperability

Contracting Study for NATO Communications and Information Agency

NCOIC is working with the NATO Communications and Information Agency to help enhance the agency’s contracting capability so it can address an increasing demand for products and services, and enable countries to acquire goods and services that will ultimately support NATO missions.

During the first phase of the project, the consortium conducted a “quick response” study. It collected information from NCOIC members on industry best practices to assist the NCI Agency in developing a methodology to expedite small-value requirements that are funded by a NATO nation or external organization and within NATO needs.

The information on industry best practices, processes and guidelines used by large organizations to address small-value requirements was shared with the NCI Agency at a workshop in Brussels, Belgium, on September 12-14, 2016. Results of the "NCI Agency External Customer Support Model Adaptation Study" and the consortium’s recommendations are being reviewed by the NCI Agency as it looks for ways to use industry customer support models to improve the delivery of C3 systems and ICT services to external customers, while meeting the demands of its primary customers and core business.

The study is part of a multi-phase project and is the latest effort in NCOIC’s ongoing partnership with NATO to develop a consolidated IT infrastructure. In 2012, NCOIC completed a study that focused on multi-national technical, culture and business issues within NATO and recommended a secure, integrated-cloud environment serving military and civilian users.

NCOIC takes pride in its work to assist the NCI Agency in modernizing its IT infrastructure and meet the operational requirements of Federated Mission Networking, a concept to support secure collaboration and information exchange in multi-national operations.

Please contact Ed Barger, NCOIC technical director, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for more information.

Terry Morgan
Dedicated NCOIC Leader

Terrence C. Morgan, Executive Council Chair Emeritus of the Network Centric Operations Industry Consortium, passed away in late July 2017.

With strong support from Cisco Systems, Inc., Terry joined NCOIC as a founding member in August 2004 and served on the Executive Council before being elected Vice Chairman in October 2007 and Chairman in October 2008. He helped establish many of the concepts and approaches for creating cross-domain interoperability that are the hallmarks of NCOIC.

Terry's main accomplishment as Chairman was to provide an international focus, which became an important part of the NCOIC agenda. He provided advice and direction to the NCOIC team that has been developing a unique relationship with NATO – a project that took a major step forward during his final days.

Terry also expanded the consortium’s international focus beyond Europe, including projects with the Australian Department of Defence, which adopted NCOIC tools and approaches for ensuring interoperability. 

As Chairman, Terry logged extensive travel time visiting countries and government organizations, explaining the role and value of NCOIC. He described how they could improve their productivity and value as well as their contributions to society. His consistent efforts gave NCOIC international recognition as a thought leader and creator of interoperability and net-centric operations.

After his chairmanship was concluded, Terry became the consortium’s best ambassador, leaving NCOIC’s mark wherever he traveled. His unique style -- a combination of technical and political integration -- opened new horizons to those normally confined by thought or job skill to a lesser vision.

“Terry carried no personal agenda -- his thoughts and direction were for the greater good. Thanks to him, we have been successful in establishing a close working relationship with NATO,” said Harry Raduege, NCOIC Chief Executive Officer. “Since our founding, his clear vision has had a profound impact on NCOIC. Our entire team will greatly miss Terry’s contributions and leadership.”

Accelerating the procurement, implementation and validation of IT solutions for NATO Federated Mission Networking

NCOIC has introduced an Interoperability Verification (IV) process intended for use by NATO in the acquisition of technical products and services for Federated Mission Networking (FMN), a capability to support secure collaboration and information exchange in multi-national operations. The IV assessment, based on product testing that takes place as part of the normal quality manufacturing process, looks at how well a technology meets NATO requirements and how easily it can be implemented and used by the NATO, its member nations and affiliates. The vision is for NATO and its partners to get enhanced capability for the same cost and for vendors to have access to more markets. 

About the Verification Process

  • NCOIC developed a verification process in partnership with NATO Allied Command Transformation (ACT) that can be used prior to acquisition to validate the claimed interoperability of products and services offered to NATO and its FMN affiliates 
  • IV process is designed to reduce risk, enabling products and services to “plug and play” within the FMN environment
  • IV process examines the evidence of technical interoperability resulting from the normal manufacturing process vendors use to build products and services and system-of-system solutions for the FMN environment
  • The objectives of NATO ACT and NCOIC are to promote greater industry involvement, shift technical solutions from NATO to industry, and use industry as market indicators for technology direction and capability growth

 Building on a Successful Collaboration

  • The IV Initiative builds on a five-year collaboration between NCOIC and NATO agencies to create cross-domain interoperability in support of NATO’s 2030 vision.
  • In 2012, NCOIC worked with the NATO Communications and Information Agency to help modernize its IT infrastructure and position it to meet FMN operational requirements. The consortium reviewed the multi-national technical, culture and business issues within NATO and recommended a secure, integrated-cloud environment to serve military and civilian users.
  • Most recently, the consortium completed a study for NATO ACT that described the "art of the possible" for 21st century command and control using industry best practices and outlined methods, processes and recommendations to achieve it.

 Benefits of NCOIC Interoperability Verification

  • Evaluation and assessment reporting before acquisition and integration identifies and reduces acquisition risk to the operators
  • Industry will lead the effort in establishing an information-sharing, feedback environment valuable to all
  • Products and services will move more quickly from integration to implementation and operational use
  • NATO agencies and nations will gain increased flexibility and capability
  • Industry will better understand and respond to FMN requirements
  • The marketplace is expected to expand with more qualified vendors representing and responding to all NATO nations and affiliates
  • Benefits NATO, member-nations, industry and all mission partners
Steps in IV process development

 

Businesses, organizations and individuals are encouraged to join the consortium and be part of the Interoperability Verification initiative!

Got a question on the IV process?