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Finding the best cyber innovations

There was a time not long ago when buildings would sprout up like mushrooms around NSA’s Fort Meade, Md., campus. Inside were racks of computers for testing malware sensors, offensive cyber weapons and all sorts of tools for NSA and the co-located Cyber Command. Assessments in physical labs and cyber ranges were how the government and its hired experts wended their way through what felt like a million and one cyber options from vendors.

Then came the pressures of sequestration and multiple continuing resolutions. Big contractors and agencies lost their appetite for building expensive labs and cyber ranges. Here's the conundrum. Spending on all things cyber remains one of the intelligence community’s top three public priorities. Without more labs, how can the government and its prime contractors find the best products in a continually morphing cyber market?

Executives at General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems of Fairfax, Va., are among those trying to plot the way ahead. The company specializes in tying together hardware and software into cyber systems for the Pentagon and intelligence community. To do its integration correctly, the company needs to stay in tune with innovations across the cyber industry, and it needs to quickly assess the performance and security of new kinds of sensors, information sharing software, and whatever other new tools NSA and Cyber Command might want.

General Dynamics thinks it has at least part of the solution. In July, the company announced the opening of GDNexus, an online portal that lets representatives of companies large and small read up about anticipated needs and compete to test software and hardware in the company’s virtual cyber environment, a closed network spread among existing General Dynamics facilities. The environment represents an actual network, complete with data feeds and digital sensors.

General Dynamics isn’t saying how much it invested in the portal and the virtual environment, but it says the investment reflects a new approach: “It’s definitely much less expensive than renting out 200,000 square feet of lab space somewhere,” said
Nadia Short, vice president of cyber and intelligence solutions at General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems.

Unlikely source of inspiration

The idea for the new portal came from a similar innovation at General Dynamics Land Systems in Sterling Heights, Mich., the subsidiary that builds tanks and combat vehicles for the Army and Marine Corps.

“They were looking for a way to do product improvements for their customers who were buying Abrams tanks, Stryker vehicles, things like that,” said Short. Land Systems especially wanted to see what kind of commercial technologies might be applied to improving military vehicles. So, it created an online portal as a gateway to its Maneuver Collaboration Center, a lab for testing potential innovations and preplanned product improvements to military vehicles.

GDNexus borrowed that process, minus the physical lab and vehicles.

“The good news for me is I don’t have to have three or four tanks sitting there to do P-cubed-I on,” Short said, using the shorthand for preplanned product improvements. “I can set up a network.”

Just as with the MC2 portal, representatives from cyber companies can register and set up user names and passwords. Once the reps are in the GDNexus system, they receive alerts whenever General Dynamics posts a new “need statement” developed from a requirement identified by a customer.

The need statements are unclassified, and representatives don’t have to have clearances to register to receive them. The first need statements, released in July, asked for technologies to do the following:

• Exchange data between government and private sector off-the-shelf technologies.

• Securely ingest cyber data.

• Detect malicious network traffic and content.

Over the portal’s first two months, 367 people registered representing approximately 240 companies, beating Short’s goal of lining up 100 companies in 30 days.

The goal wasn’t just about numbers, though. Short wanted a diverse array of companies, including small companies that might have just a few employees.

“My folks would come and say, ‘Hey, we got all the big names you’d expect to sign up in the cyber domain.’ But I would ask them, ‘So what about the names I haven’t heard about?”

Tapping Silicon Valley

That approach appears to square with one of the intelligence community’s main themes. Managers want to adapt civilian technologies developed in Silicon Valley, instead of paying the usual defense or intelligence companies to reinvent hardware or software that already exists.

In May, for example, an entourage of intelligence officials planned to travel to Silicon Valley for a series of meetings including one with billionaire web pioneer Marc Andreessen.

General Dynamics thinks the new portal can help the intelligence community wrap in the best of Silicon Valley by providing an in-road for companies. “If you’re out in Silicon Valley, you probably know zippo about how to sell your product to NSA. So in some cases, (the GDNexus portal) can definitely bridge a gap that we saw,” Short said.

The company has chosen an unusual business model for the portal. There’s no charge for companies to register and bring their electronic boxes and software to General Dynamics for testing. The companies come away with written assessments that they’re free to include in their own marketing. General Dynamics gets data to decide whether to incorporate a technology into a particular technical product. If the technology doesn’t match a current need, the report is kept in a repository for possible later use.

Short admits the benefits to General Dynamics are indirect. “In my mind, if I’m bringing forward potential solutions that help solve my customers' problems, and I’m the integrator, I’m going to wind up doing the work on the integration anyway,” Short explained.

The company is already thinking about other marketing areas to apply the same kind of portal approach. A contender is the geospatial field because of a dizzying proliferation of small companies that’s somewhat reminiscent of the cyber domain.

“Clearly everybody in the world is wanting pictures of everything -- full motion video type of pictures of everything,” Short said.

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