Norwich students design new network
for international communications exercise © Dec. 19, 2008, Norwich University Office of Communications

Swiss Army 1st Lt. Matteo Pintonello [left] provides a tour of his unit’s communication gear to Norwich students Akhan Almagambetov [center] and Cadet Thomas Cross during Combined Endeavor 2007 in Lager Aulenbach, Germany.

Photo: Brenda Benner, Combined Endeavor Public Affairs Swiss Army 1st Lt. Matteo Pintonello [left] provides a tour of his unit’s gear to Norwich students Akhan Almagambetov [center] and Cadet Thomas Cross during Combined Endeavor 2007 in Lager Aulenbach, Germany.

Norwich University students were not content with the privilege of attending the largest international computer interoperability practice session in the world.

They had to try and make it better.

Computer science and information assurance [CSIA] and computer engineering students joined forces in a class project to design a new network for Combined Endeavor, an annual spring gathering of more than 1,000 communication specialists from 40 countries. The goal is to help emergency systems speak with one another safely and reliably.

Norwich, the nation’s first private military college, was already the sole educational institution invited to the event, held most recently at a base in Baumholder, Germany. With submission of plans for two potential networks to the event’s organizers at the end of the fall 2008 semester, students hope their ideas make the exercise more powerful.

“It’s a pretty big deal,” said fourth-year CSIA student Rob Colletti. “It’s really an honor that we can participate.”

For 15 years, Combined Endeavor, organized through NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, has been an exercise for participating nations to prepare for humanitarian and peacekeeping operations, and disaster relief. Mike MacPherson [CSIA, ’08] was the lone member of the design team who attended Combined Endeavor in May 2008. During two-and-a-half weeks in Germany, he worked primarily in a “defense cell,” protecting part of the network from other cells trying to figure out how to breach security.

He said it was a great experience, but efforts were hampered by frustrating technical problems.

“The network when we were there wasn’t designed well,” said MacPherson, who suggested it felt cobbled together at the last minute. “It just wasn’t reliable.”

Professor Peter Stephenson, chairman of Norwich’s computing department, knew the network architecture was due for a redesign, calling it outdated and unwieldy. For 2009, plans were also in place to distribute the exercise between a main operating site in Bosnia and two forward operating sites, possibly in the Netherlands and Denmark. With that in mind, Stephenson volunteered Norwich, thinking the project could be the focus of a class. Things got moving when several information assurance students joined engineering Professor Steve Fitzhugh’s communications networking class.

“It gave us a chance to have some interdisciplinary interaction,” said Fitzhugh, who modified the class to accommodate the project.

Colletti said bridging the disciplines was difficult in the beginning. People in his major tend to be big-picture thinkers, while engineers are more concerned with minutia. Over time, they learned to concentrate on their strengths.

“We think differently,” he said. “When it clicked, it actually helped.”

The challenge of the project, he said, was to set up an environment where computers from many different countries can interact simultaneously. While it isn’t difficult to have one computer communicate with another regardless of operating system, making it work for many systems at once was a challenge. An additional problem was that Combined Endeavor’s organizers would be looking for a system that’s large, inexpensive and easy to replicate. A successful network should be simple, easy to set up quickly, and ready to be dropped into a disaster area on short notice.

“What it required was something flexible,” said Colletti. “At times it felt sort of overwhelming.”

The eight-student class divided into two teams that each contributed a strategy. One plan was for a physical network, involving existing hardware. The second, “virtual” design substitutes software applications for hardware devices. This was cutting-edge design.

“Virtualization is pretty new,” said MacPherson. “Not that many people know too much about it.”

This technique makes for a very quick setup, Stephenson said. Instead of connecting dozens of computers for a central network location, they are consolidated to two or four machines. This “cluster” simulates the other computers, which run as if they were independent systems.

Fitzhugh admitted he didn’t know how the class would work out, and the challenge fit in well with Norwich’s philosophy of providing opportunities to learn through experience. The students had to acquire a considerable knowledge of computer networks, and he enjoyed seeing them gain confidence as they dug into the nature of the problem.

”It was kind of like going back to our [Norwich] roots,” he said. “They did rise to the challenge. It was a big project, and I think they met it head-on.”

Stephenson said Norwich expects to send at least three students to Combined Endeavor 2009. Not only is it an outstanding learning and networking opportunity, but a chance for them to experience different cultures. Students, he said, never gravitate to the U.S. contingencies, preferring to meet people from other countries.

“They make friends,” he said. “There’s a barbecue every night, somewhere.”