Every time someone emails a policy letter, instant messages their family or takes time out to watch a movie on their desktop, the Airmen of the 455th Expeditionary Communication Squadron network control center at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, are comforted by the indicators of yet another successful work day.
A network control center serves as a data center to provide communication support to Bagram, to include server maintenance and backup, event logging, virus definition managing and email routing. In addition, the network control center performs non-secure Internet protocol router network and secure internet protocol router network service management to eliminate network vulnerabilities and ensure reliable connectivity.
The network control center Airmen provide two basic services while deployed to Bagram: morale services and network connectivity.
During deployment, high morale is an important aspect of maintaining a warrior Airman. At Bagram, the network control center addresses this need by providing services such as free wireless Internet, Internet protocol television and various morale drives.
Internet connectivity is one way network technicians help Bagram deployers focus on performing their duties every day.
Tech. Sgt. Brian Randazzo, 455th Expeditionary Communication Squadron network technician, said the network control center places resources toward the morale network so people can be in the right mindset while at work.
“When people start their duty day, they can focus on work, because they know when they get back off duty they can use social media to check on things back home and talk to their family,” he said. “They don’t have to worry about getting DSN calls or waiting for mail in order to stay in touch.”
Tech Sgt. Ian McNiff, 455 ECS network control center night shift non-commissioned officer in charge, also appreciates the impact of maintaining Internet connectivity during a deployment.
“I was in Kuwait in ’93,” McNiff said. “We had to wait in line to talk on a tactical phone for up to an hour. And, someone was standing there timing you. When your 15 minutes were up, you were out of there. He would put his finger on the receiver and hang up the phone. It blows my mind to come out here and be able to talk to my wife on the phone or Skype almost every night. I get to see my kids. The difference is day and night.”
The network control center manually joins every computer onto their wireless network and closely controls bandwidth usage to help ensure everyone has a fair chance to use the network. They even had technicians volunteer to add new computers onto the network over the Christmas holiday to ensure new arrivals could speak to their loved ones.
Another product of the crew’s dedication to support is the implementation of IPTV.
IPTV is a system through which television services are delivered using non-secured Internet, or niprnet, instead of being delivered through traditional terrestrial, satellite signal, and cable television formats.
The network control center sends multiple Armed Forces Network television channels to the desktop of any computer on Bagram.
After arriving just over three months ago, the network technicians identified an opportunity to upgrade the level of service the network control center gives its users. Therefore, they combined spare parts with their technical knowledge to hardwire old equipment so it could provide IPTV to all of their customers.
“It helps with being in this environment because there is a captive audience,” Master Sgt. George Walton, 455th Expeditionary Communication Squadron network control center superintendent said. “Our customers get involved in activities or sleep a bit, but most people end up back in the shop. Watching AFN on your desktop is a nice break since it gives you something different to look at other than secure network or niprnet traffic.”
Along with AFN news, sports and movies, users of Bagram’s niprnet also have the option of watching movies, TV series or music on their niprnet computers through the Sharepoint morale drives.
Senior Airman Eric White, 455th Expeditionary Communication Squadron network technician, said these resources are especially valuable to locations that do not have a television or where a cable run is not practical.
The network control center is currently working to increase the morale Wi-Fi bandwidth. This will help speed up media streaming and other data traffic, allowing more users to enjoy clearer video and faster Internet connections.
Although morale services are important to base support, the primary mission of the 455th Expeditionary Communication Squadron is to provide reliable, secure, network connectivity.
For a deployed location, it becomes a challenge to provide seamless network support when rotating out most of the technicians who maintain the systems.
“They’ve got to hit the ground running,” Walton said. “There is no slow spin up. We have to be able to learn and secure the network almost immediately. It’s our job to make sure the systems are running correctly.”
For this particular rotation, that responsibility held a few extra challenges.
The Airmen of the 455th Expeditionary Communication Squadron network control center are made of a variety of skill sets and backgrounds.
Walton said many of the technicians don’t normally work on servers or network connectivity at their home stations. A mixture of computer security managers, network managers and other specialties in both Reserve and active-duty jobs make up the core of skilled technicians supporting Bagram’s network.
This meant stepping out of their professional comfort zones.
“Everyone came together to understand the importance of where we are in a deployed environment,” Walton said. “They were all willing to learn, and everyone stepped up to perform each other’s job and get exposed to a different environment.”
However, one of the advantages of having such diverse manning presented itself as the network control center reduced the number of reported system vulnerabilities from 6,000 a month to 1,200 a month.
McNiff said 6,000 vulnerabilities a month had been the standard for 17 months. He said Senior Airman Nathan Kanuchok, a cyber operations technician, utilized his training and experience to write a script which steamlined the way computer systems on Bagram were being patched. This was instrumental in the increased security of the network.
The network control center provides 24-hour support by performing preventative maintenance, upgrading existing systems, applying command-directed fix actions, installing security patches to systems and educating end users on their role in computer security.
“For us to be thrown together in this melting pot, different bases and skill levels, and be able to stick to a common goal and realize what is important is a credit to the technicians working here,” Walton said.
Despite all their production and hard work, the network managers of the network control center prefer to be the silent workers keeping Bagram Air Field’s morale network, siprnet and niprnet running.
“The harder we work and the more we get done, the less people know that we are here,” Kanuchok said. “That is because nothing is broken and everything is working the way it should.”