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New agreement will strengthen network security

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Dec. 15, 2004) -- In an initiative to secure computers and networks worldwide, Air Force officials entered into an agreement with Microsoft to purchase software and support for more than a half-million computers.

Under the agreement, in partnership with Dell Computer Corp., all existing Air Force software and support contracts will be combined into one. The resulting contract will affect about 525,000 computers, officials said.

By purchasing software for the whole service under one licensing agreement, the Air Force will save $100 million over the course of the contract, they said.

But, the real intent of the contract consolidation is not to save money, but to improve security on the Air Force network and to protect the integrity of the valuable information that travels on it, said John M. Gilligan, the Air Force's chief information officer.

"The major driver for us is security," Mr. Gilligan said. "Our warfighters recognize that as we come to depend on this network, it has to be available. If there is a potential of disruption to the network, then all of the sudden this competitive edge we have of leveraging information technology just disappears."

"Today (the Air Force has) a lot of separate contracts; the software is configured separately by each of the contracts and by each of the local installations, so we have thousands of separate configurations," Mr. Gilligan said. As many as 38 separate contracts, managed by the major commands, have been in effect at one time, he said.

Such dissimilarity between computers and networks makes it difficult to centrally manage the Air Force network, Mr. Gilligan said. While installing security patches to desktop computers today can be done automatically in some locations, in most places the work must be done by technicians installing updates one computer at a time. That method is costly and time consuming, he said.

"It takes months, literally, in most cases (to install a security patch)," Mr. Gilligan said.

In an ideal situation, every machine would be exactly the same, making it easy for network managers to discover problems, devise solutions and apply fixes, he said. The new information technology initiative aims to move the Air Force in that direction.

Once the changeover is complete, updates can be made automatically to all computers at once, Mr. Gilligan said. The decision to update or not would be centralized, and the fix would be "pushed" out over the Air Force network to every computer attached.

Centralizing computer management also means a savings in terms of manpower requirements, Mr. Gilligan said.

There are about 50,000 people in the Air Force sustaining networks, servers and desktops, he said. Through common configurations, the automatic distribution of patches and the consolidation of help desks, those people can be freed up to work on other tasks.

Another part of the Air Force's agreement will provide for low-cost software for Airmen to use on their personal computers.

For a little more than $20, Airmen will have the option of getting a copy of Microsoft Office for use on their home computers, Mr. Gilligan said. Airmen will receive notification through their major commands as how best to take advantage of the low-cost software purchase, he said.