By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (March 31, 2017) -- In 1977, when the Army's current chief information officer and G-6 first put on a uniform, IBM had just recently released the IBM 5100 "portable" computer, which weighed about 50 pounds, and cost as much as $20,000 to purchase.
"It was the size of an average suitcase," said Lt. Gen. Robert Ferrell, who has served in the Army now for a total of 37 years and who will officially retire next month. "It came with a whopping 64 kilobits of memory."
That's 64,000 "bits" not 64,000 "bytes," and that early portable computer had just about enough memory to store 60 modern-day tweets from Twitter.
And back in 1977, nobody in the Army had a computer on their desk, so there was no email, no web browsers, and no Internet. The Army has come a long way since then, Ferrell said.
Ferrell wasn't the first in his family to serve in the military. During his retirement ceremony March 31, two uncles who served and his father, who also served, will be in attendance. One uncle, he said, landed at Normandy during World War II, an infantryman. The other uncle served in the Air Force in both Korea and Vietnam. His father also served in Korea and Vietnam.
"Those were really the three icons that sparked me," Ferrell said of what prompted him to enlist in his youth. Also encouraged to join the military were five of his six siblings, he said.
Ferrell said he had to attempt enlistment more than once. On his first attempt, he said, he didn't meet height/weight requirements and he was rejected from joining. "I was, at the age of 19, at least 10 pounds under weight," he said. But he was determined to serve.
"I went home and gained the weight and came back in," he said. "I really wanted to follow in my dad's and uncle's footsteps to serve."
As an enlisted man, Ferrell said, he served initially as an administrative troop. But he said he wanted to do more than that for the Army. So he applied to join Special Forces, and was eventually a light infantryman there.
"It's really the opposite ends of the pole from admin to infantry," he said.
Making the move from admin to Special Forces wasn't the only bold move Ferrell made early in his career. While enlisted, he said, he attended school. And at the end of his four-year enlistment contract, he'd completed two years of college-level education.
"I loved the military and didn't want to get out," he said. But he'd have to get out, at least temporarily. He left active duty in 1981 and went to finish college. While doing that, he joined the Virginia National Guard as a field artilleryman, and also joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps program at Hampton University in Virginia. He paid for school with his GI Bill.
By 1983, Ferrell said, just about two years after he left the enlisted force, he was back in uniform as an Army officer in the Signal Corps.
EARLY DAYS OF TECH
"Back then, I remember being a 'cable dog,' walking the lines, spinning wire," he said of his first, early experiences as a Signal Corps officer. "I remember fielding the first automated switchboard, SB-3614, in Korea, during my first assignment in the Army. There was no Internet, no Wi-Fi, no Facetime, no Skype."
Back then, telephones and "snail mail" were how the Army communicated with each other, he said.
"One of the most common questions a commander would ask to a deployed Soldier in the field was 'are you getting mail?'" he said. "It was a legacy environment, a simple environment. The speed of mail was the speed of information."
By the mid-1980s, he said, he remembers the first computers coming into the Army. The burden then wasn't just teaching Soldiers who'd operated without computers for their entire careers how to use the new technology, but also convincing them that they needed the new technology.
"Anything new for the Army is changing culture," he said. "That's probably the toughest challenge of it all: which is changing individual behavior of what they are comfortable with doing, technology-wise. It wasn't a very smooth transition. But effective, with the art of training."
Today, of course, the Army couldn't operate without computers. The entire Army is networked.
In December 2013, Ferrell took the helm as the Army's CIO/G-6, where he is responsible for the entirety of the Army's network. As the CIO/G-6, he oversees the Army's $10 billion information-technology investments, manages enterprise IT architecture, establishes and enforces IT policies, and directs delivery of operational command, control, communications and computers, information-technology capabilities to support warfighters and business users.
Since that time, Ferrell has had a little over three years to make significant headway into several lines of effort he laid out for himself and his organization.
Chief among those lines of effort, he said, was ensuring that the Army Signal Corps, of which he now served as the most senior member, was robust enough to provide the Army with the support it needs.
He said that involved an increased focus on the training, manning and equipping of signalers coming in and out of Fort Gordon. It entailed looking at unit manning, the equipment, the capabilities, and the training of all signalers in the Army.
Another line of effort was to learn to embrace, and to also enhance the Army's nascent cyber capabilities, which had just stood up three years earlier as U.S. Army Cyber Command.
"That was emerging at the time I came into the CIO/G-6," he said. "I knew it must be a partnership. I put that as my goal: to make sure we were able to partner with the military intelligence community, partner with the new cyber community."
By the standards of 1977, when Ferrell first joined the Army, the status of the Army network in 2013 was lightyears ahead of what it had been. But even that wasn't as good as it needed to be, Ferrell said. And that was another of his goals then: to improve the connectivity -- the backbone -- of the Army's network capability.
"The enterprise when I came into the CIO/G-6 was global, but when you look at the capacity of the enterprise, it was running at only 10 gigabytes," he said. "That's not a lot for the backbone of the entire global enterprise. You could have that amount on the desktop in your house right now. For it to be the main highway for the enterprise, it wasn't large enough to add on new technology."
And at camps, posts and stations, he said, the connectivity was even less, he said, at about 600 megabytes.
"That's really nothing," he said. "Imagine Fort Hood having one or two 600 megabyte pipes to really push all of the data around. That's the second largest installation for the Army in the continental United States."
Ferrell said he wanted to increase the main pipeline for the Army to 100 gigabytes, and to give each post a bump to 10 gigabytes.
"We opened up the pipes, to allow us to put more capabilities across the entire enterprise, to set the stage for cloud technology," he said.
Soldiers then had a lot of IT capability at home station, Ferrell said. But what he wanted to do in 2013 was ensure that when Soldiers went forward, when they deployed, they'd have that capability with them the entire way: at home, while traveling, and once they arrived at their deployed location.
"That was looking at all the things that Soldiers are used to in their command posts or offices, when it comes to all of the software, systems that you have, in those two environments, and having it provided all the way to the forward edge," he said. He pointed to logistics, finance and personnel systems as things that would be critical for Soldiers to have access to no matter where they are.
"All of the efforts we're working on will ultimately integrate together to optimize the Army IT enterprise, so that when all is said and done, we will move our force to a global, plug-and-play environment," Ferrell said.
LOTS MORE WORK
When Ferrell leaves the Army, his successor as CIO/G-6 will still have plenty of work to do, he said.
Included in that, he said, is network modernization for the entire Army -- new gear, new switches, at every camp, post and station. Also, getting the entire Army on board with the Joint Regional Security Stacks, to ensure that not just the Army, but all the services are able to use a common network standard and one security standard.
"Right now we are all separate and distinct," he said. "This new joint regional security environment is something that will take us up to 2020 to complete."
Ferrell also said that there are really 23 different "enterprises" inside the Army. Among those, the National Guard network, the Army Reserve network, the medical community's network, and the network that Army Materiel Command runs on. They will all have to be merged, he said.
"To achieve having transparency, the other initiative we have is to converge all those onto one environment, one Army environment," Ferrell said. "That's going to take a little time."
Another huge effort that is ongoing, Ferrell said, is the effort to reduce the number of datacenters across the Army from a whopping 1,500 to just 10. And to then, eventually, move those datacenters to the cloud.
He also said there will need to be more work done to enhance the ability of the Signal Corps to serve the Army. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he said, the Army inactivated the signal battalions. But now, he said, the Army is looking at force structure to identify capability gaps, and to use that information to make future determinations about the potential to grow the Signal Corps -- but only if it needs it.
"We hope that our network efforts will result in the Army turning a corner and that we have set the conditions to move to a more software-defined environment, continue to improve the ability of our network to support multiple types of hardware, and to further enable the operational Army," Ferrell said.
IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT THE NETWORK
For several years now, Ferrell has spearheaded an effort at Howard University in Washington, D.C., to put senior Army officers in front of young Army ROTC cadets to encourage mentoring efforts, and to help better prepare incoming officers for life in the Army.
"I'm a big believer in building the bench, talent management, and being able to reach back to the next generation," he said. "I was afforded many opportunities throughout my career -- many. And lots of senior leaders, peers and mentors were there to help me. The least I could do, in my mind, was to figure out how to provide that same opportunity to young officers who are just starting off on their journey in the military."
Now Ferrell takes a panel of his own peers, other Army general officers, with him to Howard University to meet with and develop mentoring relationships with the ROTC cadets who attend school there, and who attend schools with ROTC detachments from the surrounding area.
"The first time we came together, it was a hit," he said. "The students really loved the dialogue of just being able to have access to senior officers, and that dialogue just grew and grew."
Ferrell said he also goes to schools on his own to talk with ROTC cadets about the military and to talk about his own journey.
While Ferrell has done a lot of work during his career in developing and improving the Army network, what he's most proud of, he said, is the work he's done mentoring cadets, Army officers and Army civilians.
"It's about the people you come in contact with, and being able to help them, to share experiences, and watch them grow from that connection," he said. "I leave, very confident that the Army is in very good hands -- especially with the kids coming out of the colleges. They are really thirsting. They are educated, they are motivated. They just need a little bit of coaching to give them the right mindset. Leaving the Army, and understanding that I was able to make a difference in somebody's life, is what warms my heart the most."
Ferrell will have an official retirement ceremony March 31 at the Pentagon. He said after taking off the uniform for the last time, he looks forward to spending more time with his family, especially in the Virgin Islands where his wife Monique Ferrell, a member of the senior executive service and director of the SHARP program, hails from.