Air Force Consolidates Network

Server consolidation in the U.S. Air Force is reducing the sheer number of servers, increasing security, and returning hoards of network admins to their real jobs.

Under pressure from Congress to build a secure enterprise network, U.S. Air Force officials are consolidating their servers. The result is intended to save money, improve security and allow part-time network administrators to focus on fulfilling their main jobs.

Faced with a similar problem, Navy Department officials decided last year that IT is not a core competency, so they outsourced their ashore networks and IT to Electronic Data Systems Corp. in October 2001 through the $6.9 billion Navy-Marine Corps Intranet procurement. But Air Force officials have, for now, rejected wholesale outsourcing, arguing that its bases are the launching pads for combat missions and that outsourcing could create unnecessary security risks.

Company Information
Dell Corp.
EMC Corp.
Cisco Systems Inc.
Hewlett-Packard Co.
NetIQ Corp.
Remedy Corp.

The Air Force has 108 main bases. The consolidation project began in April 2000, when then-Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters and Lawrence Delaney, his chief information officer, visited Microsoft Corp., Oracle Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. to learn how they manage their networks. What they found startled the pair.

Air Force e-mail servers on bases usually supported hundreds of users. Each resident organization on each base—such as the base hospital, flight line, finance department, maintenance facility, and supply shop—tended to maintain its own servers and networks. In contrast, the IT companies the two visited maintained mail servers with thousands of connected users.

The Drive for Efficiency
To create an efficient enterprise network that would allow service personnel deployed for 90-day rotations overseas to connect to their base network back in the U.S., things had to change. The major command in charge of each base had to open a central network and operations security center there.

"The Air Force started seeing it needed to treat its servers as weapons systems," and certify and manage them centrally, says Debra L. Haley, associate director of strategic investment for the Air Force Research Laboratory plans and programs directorate at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

Haley, who served as the Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) chief information officer until June, oversaw a two-year reduction in AFMC e-mail servers, from 500 down to 200. AFMC has 100,000 users and is spending over $10 million this fiscal year on server consolidation. The AFMC approach includes implementing storage area networks (SANs), which Haley favors because they separate the data from the application.

Air Combat Snapshot

  • Operates on 18 bases with 110,000 users

  • Basic fighting unit is a squadron, and the average squadron maintains two application servers, a network server and an e-mail server, with at least a part-time network administrator to maintain them.

  • Initial server consolidation: About 500 Dell 4700 servers with EMC client technology at Langley Air Force Base, Va., Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., and Beale Air Force Base, Calif.

  • Each base will have a centralized network operations and security center (NOSC) and a storage area network (SAN). Only 100 yards separate the SAN and NOSC at Langley AFB.

Source: Air Combat Command

The Mark of Success
When some people think of server consolidation, according to Haley, they imagine that an organization is reducing hundreds of servers down to one. Merely clustering servers, however, enables AFMC to "contain problems" that would arise if only one "super" server were maintained. As part of the consolidation, Lockheed Martin Corp. is installing Compaq servers and storage products at AFMC's main bases over the next two years.

A more telling sign of success in server consolidation, from the Air Force's perspective, is not how many servers have been eliminated but "how many organizations you have removed e-mail responsibilities from," Haley says.

"The number of server boxes is not a measure of server consolidation success," says Col. Porter B. Clapp, Jr., the Air Combat Command (ACC) communications group commander at Langley Air Force Base, Va. He was unable to say how many servers ACC maintains for its 110,000 employees. "It's about putting hundreds of part-time network administrators back to work at their core competencies."

Trial Run
During a pilot test at three bases this summer, ACC officials installed storage area networks based on Dell 4700 servers with EMC clients and EMC Navisphere network management tools, in addition to Cisco OpenWorks, Hewlett-Packard Co. OpenView for network management, NetIQ and Remedy for help desk management. The command is spending as much as $22 million yearly on its initiative, which will culminate with storage area networks implemented at five of its 18 major bases by 2004, Clapp said.

Getting inside the organizations that work at ACC bases so the SANs can work seamlessly is a key to success, Clapp says. Given the Air Force's military mission, "there's a need for highly reliable contingency planning," he notes, with grid fail-over, system backup, and restoration.

True redundant pathways for servers and networks, as well as enterprise fail-over capability to lower operational risks, are also key to server consolidations success, according to Brig. Gen. Trudy H. Clark, the Air Force's deputy CIO. "From an operational success standpoint, it is essential to have leadership support from the top," which came initially through the Peters and Delaney West Coast trip in April, 2000.

Finding Funding
Determining how to pay for the servers and their support is another challenge that CIOs face with server consolidation, Haley says. Options include charging base organizations a fee for the service they receive or getting funding from the command's mission budget. "We're trying to establish a baseline funding" to support server consolidation for years to come, she adds.


Team Leader: John M. Gilligan, chief information officer (CIO)

Location: Throughout the United States Air Force's 108 main bases.

Web Site:


  • To reduce the number of servers the Air Force's major commands use
  • Relieve part-time network administrators from support duties
  • Lower procurement and maintenance costs
  • Improve security.

Scope: Entire project will extend through 2004.

Equipment/Platform: Mostly Compaq and Dell servers with Compaq and EMC storage and network management by Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Remedy, Veritas and other vendors.

Solutions: The Air Force's nine major commands are consolidating base-level network control centers (NCC) so that all network traffic goes through a central NCC on each base. The service is also deploying a storage area network on each base.


  • Electronic Data Systems Corp.
  • Lockheed Martin Corp.
  • TRW Corp.

Interoperability Issues: The use of various OSes, such as Microsoft Windows NT and Unix, have created interoperability problems. This has led the Air Force Materiel Command, to take one example, to have to write different network management scripts for IBM Tivoli.

Milestones: It's taken about two years for the Air Force to consolidate its Microsoft Exchange 5.5 e-mail servers. The effort to consolidate file and print servers and Web servers, among other categories, is continuing.

Lessons Learned: "The main thing we've found is this is a cultural change," Debra Haley says. "It takes time to work things through," and explain to users the benefits of consolidation. "People are used to owning their IT assets."