FORT HOOD, Texas - As the sun rises on any given weekday, the cars of the more than 1,000 people whose names appear on the employee roster of the Whitfill Central Technical Support Facility (CTSF) begin to fill the marked slots in the three massive parking lots on three sides of the 24-building facility.

Before the sun has reached the 10 o'clock notch on the arc between dawn and noon, the lots are full. But, it wasn't too long ago that the CTSF could boast only one small parking lot in front of the two trailers that housed its comparatively rudimentary test facilities.

Don Kirby, who now works in the CTSF's System Engineering and Integration branch, was one of the first four members of the facility's staff.

He arrived at the two-trailer complex in 1996 only months after the CTSF cranked up its first computer. "We only had what are now Trailers 4 and 6," Kirby recalled, and our office was in the current (conference room)."

Kirby, like his CTSF contemporaries, was hired as an "independent tester" for the then test cell that was not really entirely part of the CTSF.

"At that time, the test cell was an adjunct of EPG (the Army's Electronic Proving Ground). We were a forward enclave of EPG Northwest, headquartered in Fort Lewis (Washington)," Kirby said.

The CTSF was, as a matter of record, organized by the Program Executive Office, Command, Control, Communications-Tactical (PEO/C3-T) in 1996 to provide a center for the rapid development and testing of the Army Battle Command (now called LandWarNet Battle Command) System.

"We only had like seven systems back then, Maneuver Control System, Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System (AFATDS), All-Source Analysis System (ASAS), Combat Service Support Control System, Commanders Real-Time Tactical Display (CSS-CS), the predecessor of the Air and Missile Defense Workstation (AMDWS), and Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2)," Kirby recalled. He added that, in fact, the CTSF test cell, "didn't have much FBCB2 around" at the time.

"We were just trying to get the TOC (tactical operations center) systems to talk to each other," he added. By the end of 1997, the CTSF test cell roster had "swollen" to three "independent testers", and had hired on, as Kirby's recalls, five to seven test operators.

"There was supposed to be one (operator) per system. As time went by, other (test operators) were provided by the PMs (project managers)," Kirby said.

The CTSF didn't actively start hiring and training test operators until 2000. As the CTSF grew, so too, did the formal process for its growth.

Len Krals, the CTSF's former director of testing and evaluation, recalled that the process called for a task-organized, multi-disciplined, matrix-managed organization, at the center of which were Army Battle Command System project managers and their contractors. The CTSF's employee core was to be--and is--supplemented by several other contract organizations.

Both Kirby and Krals agreed that the early days of the CTSF were long busy ones, and although the specified mission was to assure interoperability between the systems that made up the ABCS, the unwritten mission involved attempting to figure out how to get things done.

"We were trying to build an SOP," Kirby recalled. Kirby said he and his co-workers found themselves starting at square one.

Now, the interoperability of Army software systems is tested on banks of computers that are interlinked in complex, carefully thought out architectures.

Test officers and operators use test cases derived from larger sets of commands called mission threads, to track messages sent and received from one system to another. Test messages may be "split" along their path, and guided through the test architecture depending on the test case being used.

Where currently, the CTSF maintains three expansive test floors and volumes of state-of-the-art equipment, the facility in which Kirby found himself was substantially different.

"There wasn't a lot of room, and not a lot of equipment," he said, "and, at that point we had no test cases ... and there were no (mission) threads yet."

"We had our few systems, and we had roles (simulated battlefield functions) for the systems, but no threads for testing. In those days everything (done to test a system) was done via a simple message and there was no data sharing," he said.

Early on, according to Kirby, trying to foster inter-TOC digital data sharing was something akin to "herding cats."

"You tweaked, you fixed, you cajoled...," he said with a faint smile. But gradually, things started to change.

The first examples of what are now known as test cases appeared while CTSF worked with AFATDS. "The first real test case was actually a thread, and it was built by Gene Twilleager," Kirby said. Twilleager is now a branch chief in the CTSF Test Division.

The early efforts of testers like Kirby, Krals and Twilleager--along with input from initial and evolved partnerships with CECOM, EPG, Army Test & Evaluation Command and Army Warfighters-- resulted in the current test process.

The process embraces an end-to-end approach in which testing is accomplished by pushing messages through a system of systems so the cause and effect of information flow can be observed.

Periodically, the CTSF implements a rigorous "test-fix-test" development process that actually harkens back to the facility's early days. Test-fix-test cycles are methodical, measured efforts toward rapid software development in which configuration management is maintained by rapid delivery of new functionality facilitated in a shortened time frame.

Recently, the CTSF became the first accredited member, and the hub, or the Pentagon's new Federation of Net-Centric Sites (FaNS).

It is considered the hub of the FaNS system because of its success developing software interoperability testing procedures, and because of its ability to define the effect of the growing number of digital systems provided to the Warfighter.

The CTSF, now under the command of Col. Steven G. Drake, has become a center where computer scientists, network engineers, software engineers, technicians, installers, computer operators, test officers, analysts, subject matter experts and program managers work together to assure Warfighters that the software in the systems they use on the battlefield performs its intended function.

The roots of the current CTSF are firmly planted in the late 1990s and in the early work of the men and women whose cars were parked in that first small parking lot in front of the first two trailers.

"We were - almost all of us - old Soldiers, and not too long out of the field," Kirby said. "We knew because of our field experience, what we had to do, and where it had to go. It all ended up in the hands of the Soldier," he said.

(This article appeared in Spectra, the magazine of the CECOM Life Cycle Management Command. To access the full issue in PDF format, 3.2 megabytes, click on the link appearing in the "Related Links" box at the start of the article.)