Global Transportation Network Ratings Soaring
In the Defense Department’s transportation pipeline, people, weapons and equipment constantly are on the move, even during peacetime. Their steps are recorded in more than 2 million computer transactions each day. And that is just on “normal” days.
A Web-based system known as the Global Transportation Network helps the Defense Department capture the electronic movement of data. The rate of activity in the GTN skyrockets when U.S. forces are deployed for combat.
In the months preceding the war in Afghanistan, for example, the network averaged about 40,000 queries per month. “We saw this number double and then triple after September 11,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Gilbert Hawk, director of command, control, communications and computer systems at the U.S. Transportation Command.
A steady growth in the number of users and the increased complexity involved in the defense transportation system led to the decision nearly two years ago to upgrade GTN’s hardware and software. This month, the Transportation Command was expected to award up to $200 million in contracts for the so-called GTN 21 project.
The genesis of GTN can be found in the Gulf War, when commanders experienced great pains trying to figure out “where’s my stuff?” The Global Transportation Network was designed in the early 1990s, to provide in-transit visibility of individual or unit movements and supply or equipment requisitions, as they traverse the defense transportation system. GTN also allows port managers to view what’s coming to their port over a specified time period.
“Whether in peace or war, GTN is used for these same purposes,” Hawk told National Defense. “What we do notice, though, is that as we move from peacetime to wartime operations, the activity level against GTN changes,” he said. “In peacetime, we see a large number of queries on individual supply or equipment requisitions supporting sustainment operations. ... As we transition to wartime operations, we see the focus changing to unit moves in support of force deployment.”
Currently, GTN has more than 6,000 individual user accounts. These users range from installation-level transportation clerks to senior officials from the Joint Chiefs of Staff—and every level in between, such as the Unified Command staffs, Joint Task Forces, service headquarters and all echelons of command. To access GTN, all they need is an Internet connection and a Web browser.
The GTN, it should be noted, does not generate any data—it only collects information from so-called feeder systems. The data feeds come from at least 23 government systems and more than 40 commercial transportation companies that provide air, land and sea-lift services to the Defense Department.
Of the 2 million transactions conducted daily, about 1.2 million are from Defense Department systems and 800,000 from the commercial sector, Hawk said. “As a result, data integrity is the key element of providing decision quality information to GTN users.”
But like any other computer network that experiences heavy use and operates on aging hardware, GTN is beginning to crack.
In computer years, GTN is in advanced age, explained Doug Barton, the original designer of GTN. He is director of information security and architectures at Lockheed Martin Mission Systems.
“We designed the system in 1993,” Barton said in an interview. Lockheed delivered the first system in October 1996, to support peacekeeping operations in Bosnia. “Since 1993, how many technology cycles have there been in the marketplace?” he noted. “Some of the design constructs and products we used are at the end of their life.”
The storage disks, running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, are “getting hammered,” Barton noted. During the past eight years, these disks have been recording 20-50 updates per second. “The system is doing fine, but that can’t continue forever,” he said.
Lockheed leads one of the teams competing for the GTN 21 award. Just about every major information-technology firm has been vying for the GTN 21 contract. In addition to Lockheed, other competitors include Computer Sciences Corp., Northrop Grumman, Boeing, DynCorp and TRW Inc.
“I’m not surprised that the whole industry responded to it,” said Barton. “There aren’t too many big new starts like GTN 21 every year.” This program also is attractive for reasons other than companies’ bottom lines, he added. “It has great technology content. ... People like to participate in these important war-fighter systems.”
One significant drawback that GTN has today is the “discontinuity” in the data, Barton explained. That happens because data coming from many disparate legacy systems often is difficult to blend into a coherent picture. “The data from different military systems doesn’t necessarily integrate well,” Barton said.
Information generated at a logistics depot, for example, is combined with data from other ports or depots. In many cases, he said, “the ends don’t always meet in the middle.”
Such glitches reveal themselves in all sorts of interesting ways, Barton noted. GTN users sometimes see shipments arrive before they see when those shipments left. “I’ll see a box moving, and I don’t know what’s in it, because the system that manifested the material end of the box has a different set of timing requirements than the person physically moving the box.”
The accuracy of the timing data varies by transportation mode, he said. “Air information is much more current than the ocean data, [because] planes go faster than boats.”
To minimize the data discontinuity problem, GTN technicians at the Transportation Command try to educate the feeder system organizations on possible ways to ease the data integration. “Feeder systems may have to take some action to contribute to a better picture,” Barton said. He noted that the data “has gotten much better over the last five years.” And that did not happen because GTN made magic, “but because GTN revealed the problem,” he said. “TRANSCOM worked with the contributing systems to make adjustments.”
Human errors also can trigger bugaboos in the system. Shipments, for instance, are identified by 15-digit transportation-control numbers. If one system inputs the number correctly, but another system is off, even by a single digit, “when both pieces of information show up, I may or may not be able to marry them together,” Barton noted.
The same is true for other identifiers, such as geographical locations or mission numbers (the flight number). “If two systems give me that number differently, I have to use other means to decide if it’s the same flight.”
In the defense transportation system, there are hundreds, or even thousands of organizations and individuals who independently book transportation, package equipment or order materials. As a result, there are many opportunities for errors.
At TRANSCOM, a group of technicians is dedicated to reviewing transaction errors and figuring out how to solve them.
Hawk agreed that it would be unrealistic to expect GTN to offer a flawless picture of the transportation network. “Each of these feeder systems was developed to provide specific operational capabilities—not necessarily for in-transit visibility,” he said. “TRANSCOM has a full-time data-quality team to continually assess the timeliness and accuracy of the data in GTN.”
The command’s director of operations and logistics, Hawk noted, has “an aggressive automatic identification technology program underway throughout the command, to improve the quality of data at the source.”
The technology that GTN 21 will bring along should go a long way to help eliminate many of the current shortfalls in GTN, said Charlie Butler, technical director at Oracle Consulting. The company is a member of the Lockheed GTN 21 team.
In the next generation of GTN, he said in an interview, the data management capabilities, system software and program codes “will be totally reconstructed.”
Tools are available now that nobody even dreamed about in the early 1990s, when GTN was created, Butler said.
One of those tools is called ETL, for extract, transform and load. ETL is commercial software that facilitates the process of loading data from external sources into a database. “Rather than writing a lot of code, these tools allow you to implement transformation, cleansing and loading processes for the data much more quickly,” said Butler.
Another new tool is the “ad hoc query.” It’s a capability for a database user to customize queries and retrieve the desired information, without the developer having to write new software.
Based on their level of security clearance, GTN operators could choose from a menu of data options, “and the system figures out how to get the data out of the database,” said Butler.
Novel software technologies, additionally, could help fix the chinks in the GTN data stream caused by human error. “That is one of the main areas of emphasis in GTN 21,” said Butler. In GTN, data is only loaded once, but is queried many times. “So you want to do as much data cleansing as possible during the load process. ... That greatly simplifies retrieving the data later, since GTN gets data of variable quality from many source systems,” he said. “Some of those problems can be overcome with the technology now available.”
Even though GTN is a highly customized military system, its technical challenges in some ways are no different from those seen in large commercial supply-chain networks.
In the “e-business” world, said Butler, “typically you find multiple systems developed by different vendors trying to interoperate.” GTN essentially views the world through the data it receives from the feeder systems. It has to make sense of data that is inconsistent across the system. “Trying to work with the data developed by all these different people, that’s very much an e-business problem.”
Butler said he expects that GTN 21 will improve the connectivity with commercial shippers. A customized electronic-data exchange interface will be replaced with commercial transaction standards used in the e-business world. Security features also will be improved, so clearances can be tailored for different operators.
GTN is not a multi-level security system in the strict definition of the term, according to Hawk. The Transportation Command, he said, “has implemented an aggressive strategy for protecting the information in the Defense Transportation System, including GTN.”