Evaluating mobile technology for warfighter use challenging
October 31, 2012
By Ray Ragan
Fort Huachuca, AZ. - Mobile technology, or mobility as it is referred to by the military, is for the first time, taking a prominent role in defense. Defense Information Systems Agency Director U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronnie Hawkins, Jr. announced mobility would be one of his eight initial efforts for his agency, which has raised the next question -- "how to test and evaluate these technologies before our nation's warfighters use them?"
For the Joint Interoperability Test Command, a U.S. defense organization charged by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to test, evaluate and certify technology and communications systems and products for joint use, this is a question that they must answer.
Testing and evaluating mobility is especially challenging when compared with technology of the past. In the past, many of the devices used by the military were purpose-built, that is, engineers designed the technology for use by the military adhering to strict requirements. Consequently, the device and its software did not change frequently; the tests on these products did not need to re-invent themselves constantly.
DISA's Strategic Plan describes how the agency will support its mobility initiatives as, "[w]e will promote rapid delivery, scaling, and utilization of secure mobile capability leveraging commercial mobile technology to enable an agile deployment environment for new and innovative applications to support evolving warfighter requirements."
The plan's 'commercial mobile technology' includes devices such as BlackBerrys, iPhones, the Android-based family and many others like these that will be used by the warfighter. With the rapid release cycle of new handsets and devices, there is no guarantee that a button will stay in the same place or the screen will be the same size from one generation to the next.
Complicating matters further, software changes can change how devices behave. All these changes create many variables for engineers and testers at JITC as they test and evaluate mobility.
"The mobility infrastructure involves many device types running a large number of applications on multiple operating systems connecting through WiFi and wireless carriers to mobile device managers, backend enterprise systems and mobile application storefronts," explained John LeCompte, JITC's DISA mobility instrumentation lead. "Testing this continually evolving infrastructure is a complex resource intensive effort."
To meet this effort, LeCompte and his team turned to automated testing and, like the commercial mobile devices they would be testing, the team looked at five commercial testing tools for mobile devices. Evaluating those tools on nine criteria, one tool emerged as the best fit for the testers' needs that offered both, an integrated-development environment and testing service package.
The tool offers a cloud-based service that uses actual mobile devices, like iPads and Android-based phones. Devices can be connected to the cloud by two methods, hardware instrumented to the device or by installing software agents. For hardware-instrumented devices, engineers have physically wired in connections to the video, buttons and other controls to allow the device to be remotely monitored and controlled from the cloud. Testers can interact with the devices through a Web-based interface across a network as if they were holding the device in their hand.
The second method of connecting a device is to install a software agent on a device tethered to the network. An agent is a special piece of software that usually runs in the background and performs some action. In this case, the agent relays input and output from the device back to a testing IDE, where JITC technicians monitor and write scripts that perform the tests.
Central to automated testing is being able to script a test. Scripting is a simplified programming language that allows engineers to tell a computer how to conduct a test. Rather than having testers pick up a device and press the buttons while recording the results, scripting can do this automatically.
"This allows us to write the script once and test it against many devices," said Tuan Nguyen, contract senior system engineer at JITC.
The testers and engineers of JITC will need this tool, as well as others, as they meet the growing needs of information mobility on the battlefield. Not only do they have the challenge of meeting rapidly advancing technology with mobile devices, they must also address Department of Defense-specific challenges such as security and information assurance.
"The biggest test instrumentation concern at the moment will be how to rapidly conduct static and dynamic IA (information assurance) testing analysis on mobile applications. The recently released draft Mobile Applications Security Requirements Guide is being evaluated, and tools are being researched to address this need. The solution will most likely be a combination of automated and manual testing," said LeCompte.