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Air Force teaming with Pivotal to rapidly deploy software worldwide

This content is provided by Dell/Pivotal

Traditionally, military branches as well as other organizations within the government are known for completing tasks and making changes in specific and ordained ways. As an example, it can typically take up to five years for the U.S. Air Force and other services within the Department of Defense to develop, deploy and begin using enterprise-level software in a real world environment. While that used to be acceptable, given today’s fast-moving conflicts and shifting political climates, waiting for years to deploy software no longer works for the military.

At the SpringOne Platform last year, Air Force Director of Cyberspace Innovation Lauren Knausenberger joked, “This is an Air Force that can hit the back end of a fly from halfway around the planet, but when it comes to doing things like deploying business email, woo! That’s really hard.” Many software developers throughout government would no doubt agree with her. “We’ve had difficulty taking things from the public space for our own use. But one real bright spot that we have found is that actually, we can do agile software development, and we can do it in a classified environment, and we can do it with partners that represent some of the best of Silicon Valley.”

One of the Air Force partnerships that Knausenberger was speaking of is with Pivotal. Through this joint endeavor, software deployment times can be condensed to just a few months, and, as the Air Force continues to experiment with software-led digital transformation, that cycle may be reduced even farther in the near future.

The Path to Success

It all started with a pathfinder project conducted by the Air Operations Center (AOC) command, which is responsible for refueling all kinds of Air Force vehicles and aircraft in the Middle East and beyond. Working with the Defense Experimental Innovation Unit (DIUx), the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and Pivotal, the goal of the experimental program was to significantly reduce software deployment times.

Already having helped some of the world’s most established companies unleash innovation and reduce their time-to-market, as well as spending fewer resources to maintain their existing portfolios, Pivotal was a natural choice for the Air Force’s pick as a partner. Through Pivotal Cloud Foundry, a cloud-native platform that has been proven to reduce development times across the board, they were able to help increase productivity while reducing costs.

The AOC program itself took a lean, startup approach to global platform delivery with iterative hypothesis testing and small feedback loops built to reduce risk and increase ability to execute expeditiously. For example, they succeeded in delivering a new software platform to the Air Force’s Pacific Operational Theater in just 150 days, where past efforts took upwards of three to five years.

Taking a page from the success of those programs, the Air Force decided to partner with Pivotal to completely overhaul their software development process, effectively turning it into a viable software “company.” Because some of the folks in charge of the new program are Star Wars fans, they named this program Project Kessel Run. “Kessel Run is the embodiment of the idea that the Department of Defense doesn’t have to suck at building software,” said Air Force Captain Bryon Kroger, COO of Project Kessel Run. “We are bent on completely changing the way the Air Force Builds and delivers software.”

Part of this revolution in “how things are done” was to build a software lab in Boston that was modeled after successful Silicon Valley companies. Opened last May, the Kessel Run Experimentation Lab is a shared cooperative space containing many companies. Air Force personnel are pulled out of their normal military base, encouraged to wear civilian clothes, and paired with civilian counterparts to facilitate their acclimatization. “An example of how the new lab’s culture contradicts the military’s is by ‘pushing down’ decision-making to the front lines, as opposed to making everyone follow a pecking order,” said Simon Holroyd, head of the Pivotal Labs space at the site.

The Path Forward

To quote wise Master Yoda from Star Wars, “Always in motion is the future.” Even as current technology needs are met, those needs will constantly change alongside technology and objectives. “Tomorrow’s conflicts will be data-centric,” said Kroger, “and it will be software on every device, in every domain, that will determine the course of them.”

And the Air Force is continuing breakthroughs with the Kessel Run software development team. For example, Kronos was developed as part of a new effort called Mad Hatter, which was established late last year to solve pilot and maintenance trouble tickets concerning the F-35 fighter jet. If all goes well, it could lead to a much bigger overhaul of the F-35’s unscalable, non-cloud-based logistics backbone, known as the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS).

Given the continued successes the Air Force has had with conversion to more agile deployments, don’t be surprised if their methodologies turn up in other areas of the government. In the DOD, from procurement to weapons systems testing, one day all aspects of software development may reflect the lessons learned by the Air Force during their Kessel Run experiments.