Guard Duty: The Army National Guard Deploys Linux to Its Legions

by William Murray

Driven by the need to run the same command and control systems that the active duty runs, but on cheaper hardware platforms, Army National Guard citizen-soldiers run Linux on more than 1,200 workstations in 30 states.

After post-Gulf War studies showed that the easiest way to improve a unit's readiness was to provide more training opportunities, Guard officials decided to rush the porting of two command and control systems to Linux, according to Lt. Col. Raymond Steinbart, Deputy Director of the Army National Guard's Leadership Development Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Steinbart served for the Missouri Guard, before he received his call to active duty.

With the increase in deployments, such as those to Bosnia and Kosovo, that pull in Guard units, it has become clear that major combat units needed to train on at least a couple of basic command and control applications in order to work well with active duty systems.

Since Guard units are getting called to deployment more often, commanders wanted their citizen-soldiers to train on the same command and control systems that the active duty Army uses more frequently than once a year or once every other year. Guard officials, who have less money than their active duty counterparts to spend on systems, say that money played a big role in their decision to deploy Linux.

Who can argue with the price of Linux freeware and cheaper PC hardware?

"We could not afford to field the Janus [simulation command and control] system as the active duty Army was using it," Steinbart says. "[However,] the cost for the Linux version started at about $90,000 and is now down to about $40,000 for a similar 15-computer suite." The computer suite includes Intel Pentium III 500 MHz processors with 128M of RAM and 18G hard drives with a 19- or 21-inch monitor. In comparison to the $300,000 price tag associated with an active duty, 16-workstation suite, Linux became a very viable option. In addition, the Linux-ported command and control applications have the same "look and feel" as the same active duty applications when they're ported to Sun Solaris and other UNIX operating systems.

Price played a key factor in the Guard's decision to deploy freeware Linux, since it has comparable performance to other operating systems that the Army would have had to purchase. Beginning in 1995, when Guard officials started using Linux, Steinbart admits that "the performance of Linux (originally Version 4), compared to other systems like Windows NT 3.51 and Windows 95, made the decision to use Linux rather obvious."

Training: No Problem

The ability to access information over the Internet has made Linux training easier for Guard citizen-soldiers, according to Lt. Col. Rusty Lingenfelter, Chief of Communications Operations at the Information Systems Division for the National Guard Bureau's Readiness Center in Arlington, Va. Lingenfelter is an Iowa guardsman who was called to active duty.

"Turn it on. It works," says Maj. Paul Castells, Battle Staff Training Action Officer at the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, and so far, there have been no training problems. Even with the tendency of some operating systems to "crash at inopportune times"—which is anytime, of course—Steinbart notes that Linux rarely crashes. "The stability of the operating system is surprising." With a laugh, he attributes most Linux crashes to users "trying to do something unique."

National Guard Bureau officials use Linux not only for simulation, but also for network management, and as an applications server. They also use Linux as their operating system for their homegrown Janus constructive simulation, which trains brigade and battalion commanders and their staffs on battle command and control. The Guard also uses Linux on its Warrior Phoenix project, which Steinbart calls a "surrogate command and control system," that the active duty Army runs on UNIX computers.

To make Linux more secure, Guard officials had to "tighten it down" using security tools. "Linux is not inherently security conscious," Lingenfelter admits, although there are versions that come with potential security liabilities turned off as a default.

Using the Strength of the Linux Development Community

Guard officials have been pleasantly surprised by the wide variety of hardware platforms and devices that Linux supports. Lingenfelter quips, "[If] you have a [network interface card] that's not supported by Linux, just take a look around the Web, it will probably be supported next week." The credit, of course, goes to the army of software developers who work on Linux freeware versions and use the Internet to distribute updated versions.

The Guard has had to be nimble because it uses PCs by a number of different manufacturers, such as Broadax Systems, Compaq, Dell, HP and Toshiba America Information Systems. They also run Linux on some Sun workstations.

The Guard uses several different Linux versions, from Linux Versions 5.2 to 6.2 for simulation in the field, as well as Version 5.2 on Sun and 6.1 by Red Hat on PCs at the Readiness Center. The Guard wants to upgrade from Linux 5.2 to 6.1 because the latter version has a better user interface and desktop environment.

Eventually, Guard techies will contribute back to the Linux community, particularly with device drivers for Linux versions, Lingenfelter predicts, since that's a minor issue they had to tackle in their Linux deployment.

What about vendor support for Linux, which some claim makes it a liability, compared with Microsoft Windows NT? "In simulation, it hasn't been a problem to get commercial support for Linux," Lingenfelter reports. "There's plenty of vendor support," which Guard officials have received after examining reports by GartnerGroup, he says. The Guard is mostly supporting itself, and "we haven't required much vendor support," to date.

The Guard hasn't found any good, reliable Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) device drivers for Linux, so they can't run Linux on their ATM-based wide area network, which is called GuardNet XXI and has points of presence in all 50 states and four territories, Steinbart says. Recently, however, citizen-soldiers have been able to bypass the ATM side by connecting Linux workstations to the Ethernet hubs on GuardNet XXI.

Although they plan to port any command and control applications that are used by the active duty Army in cases where the Guard doesn't have a software license to cover the operating system, Guard officials didn't make any predictions about their future use of Linux. "On the desktop, it's still got a ways to go before it's supportable," Castells says. "We could switch for servers."

They're now working on porting the two intelligence command and control applications, All Sources Analysis System and Maneuver Control System, to Linux.

If Guard officials found another freeware product they thought did the job better than Linux, they could displace it, Lingenfelter says. "We're trying to be good custodians of taxpayer money. We continue to evaluate different open source products." He said the Guard didn't pay anything for the Linux software—they just download it from the Internet.

For now, however, Linux "is our operating system of choice, based upon its price and performance, and the bang we get for our buck," Steinbart says. He points out that the active duty Army and other applications used jointly by Defense Department services have also adopted Linux for training simulation applications for the same reason as the National Guard. "The cost of replacing older UNIX, (Digital) VMS and Solaris systems is just too great, when a Linux system can be fielded for just a fraction of the costs, and it offers as good or better performance, and lower operating costs."

Even back amid the hoopla over Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 and its wide acceptance in the armed services—which have come at the expense of Novell NetWare and Banyan Worldwide VINES—Linux has made headway in the Defense Department as an operating system for simulating command and control applications, after getting its initial foothold in the federal government in the academic and scientific communities at the Energy Department, NASA and other agencies.

Less Travel

The Guard has the most extensive distance learning network in the federal government, and officials want to use it to train more citizen-soldiers, particularly since each soldier signs up for just one weekend of duty each month, plus two weeks of advanced training. In addition to its work with the active duty Army, each state's National Guard reports to its governor for cases of civil disorder, natural disaster and other aid.

"There will be less travel because the students or instructors would not need to travel to a particular location for the training," Steinbart explains. "Also, at any location, there is a limit on the number of workstations that can be physically installed in a room, due to size of the room, power available, etc. With distance learning, we could offer training to multiple sites concurrently, overcoming the physical constraints at any individual classroom site."

On weekend drills, the Guard loses an average of four to eight hours for each citizen-soldier's travel time from the home station to the exercise location. Since there are more than 360,000 soldiers working from 3,200 armories, it adds up.

If they can use GuardNet XXI to deliver Linux-based simulated command and control training at each citizen-soldier's home station, then the Guard can spend more time training each soldier and also reduce the risk of traffic accidents that occur when tired Guardsmen travel to and from remote training sites. A side benefit of distributed and remote training is that it increases soldier morale because there's less travel involved.

New Jersey Guard units acting as an opposing force could fight the Wisconsin Guard's 32nd Brigade through GuardNet XXI. Attack helicopters from the Tennessee Guard could support the 32nd Brigade, while the Missouri Guard clears enemy mines and obstacles, and the New Mexico Guard gives air-defense artillery support.

Simulating Wargame Exercises Using Linux

In February, Guard units from four states conducted a proof-of-concept for Remote Guard Duty Janus, a simulated, battle-staff training exercise, using PCs that run Linux, connected through GuardNet XXI. The two-day exercise featured soldiers from the National Guard Leader Development Center at Fort Leavenworth, Iowa National Guard's Regional Training Institute at Camp Dodge, Iowa, the 34th Division Armory in Rosemont, Minn., and the Wisconsin National Guard State Headquarters. A successful Remote Janus exercise in January had involved five workstations and one host from the Iowa and Kansas National Guards.

Iowa Guard members ran Janus on HP's Vectra PCs with Pentium III 500 MHz processors. Partitioned drives gave 2G of space to the Linux operating system and its applications, with 8G going to the Microsoft Windows NT Workstation 4.0 or Windows 98, which the Guard runs for its Reserve Component Automation System workstation programs.

The rest of the PCs used were notebook PCs by Broadax Systems, with 400 MHz Intel Pentium III processors, 128M of RAM, 8G hard drives, 10-Base T Ethernet cards and 15-inch monitors.

Named for the Roman god of gates and doorways who could see the past and future, Janus is a "very versatile" modeling program developed by Lawrence Livermore Laboratories in California during the 1980s. First used to model nuclear blast effects, Janus evolved, under rewritten code, as an Army simulation trainer for junior officers about 10 years ago.

The Guard is hosting Remote Janus over GuardNet XXI, to enable remote units to participate, while they are also developing another version called Distributed Janus to work on an Ethernet local area network.

"[Distributed Janus can run several simulation games] at the same time in different locations, by exchanging critical information about the current state of each game across a wide area network," says Maj. Sean Donahoe, who works in the Guard training directorate at Arlington, Va. Remote Janus, meanwhile, can run no more than one game at a time through a WAN.

Connected over the GuardNet XXI WAN and Minnesota State WAN, the Remote Janus simulation loaded well. "The simulation was not degraded and has full functionality and played at all speeds," reports Lt. Col. Joel D. Hart of the Leader Development Center at Fort Leavenworth. One test of a simulation application's loading capabilities is the excitement and sweat that soldiers show when they use it.

Future Plans
The Guard's ATM distance learning network evolved from an Iowa Guard project, and the Iowa Guard is also taking a leadership role in the Remote Janus initiative.

Iowa Guard officials want to run Remote Janus at command-post exercises on 96 workstations, simultaneously, with a 10,000-icon limit using Distributed Interactive Simulation and High Level Architecture compatible simulation data. The February test used as many as 1,200 icons. They also envision 24-hour operations, Janus PC-suites in all Iowa armories, adjustable bandwidth on demand, and voice, data and video teleconferencing capabilities in the field.

The Guard hasn't run the Warrior Phoenix yet on GuardNet XXI during a training exercise, but they have tested it on partial to full T-1 networks with very good results.

To reduce their need to physically install Linux boxes at each site where they conduct training, the Guard wants to use collaborative software tools, such as Microsoft Netmeeting.

"The goal would be that the real Linux box and application would be running at one site," Steinbart says. "At the remote site, by virtue of the software, the remote user could see the same screen image the real user sees, and the remote user could take control of the keyboard and mouse and interact with the application, if necessary."

The Army National Guard has shown that having to operate on a shoestring budget can make an organization deploy technology more wisely. Lingenfelter freely admits that the active duty Army is much more likely to deploy cutting-edge technology because it has more money to spend.

Rather than just deploying Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 to fulfill every function under the sun, they selected Linux because it's a freeware product that performed at least as well as the previous versions of NT 4.0 that were out when the Guard made its decision.