FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- For the second time in three years, the Network Enterprise Center at Fort Drum has been named Best Large NEC in 7th Signal Command, an accomplishment that recognizes the center's expertise in operating, maintaining and defending the post's digital networks.

"We were extremely proud and excited," said Fort Drum NEC Director Joanne L. Thornton, who led her team to the same recognition in 2010, when NEC of the Year awards first began. "We heard the competition was tough this year. (But) we knew with all the work, effort and initiatives that the NEC team had been working on, we would be a contender."

This year, Fort Drum also won Best Large NEC at the 93rd Signal Brigade level. The staff now will compete against two other large NECs for the Department of the Army NEC of the Year award, which will be presented during the annual LandWarNet conference in August.

The NEC of the Year large category is defined as at least 7,000 active directory accounts. Fort Drum's NEC currently serves more than 13,000 accounts.

In addition to criteria focused on initiative, mission and training, judges this year evaluated the NEC competition on solutions to resource shortfalls due to budget constraints.

Thornton said she is very grateful for the 87 employees she is entrusted to lead at the NEC, along with their strong rapport with members of the garrison and division.

She said it is a unique culture of respect and professionalism that, among other things, helped put Fort Drum on top.

"This reaffirms that the people we have here are the best," she said. "Our workforce is No. 1. They are so dedicated. I don't know how we got so lucky in getting a team of people that are of one mindset.

"This garrison has been phenomenal in supporting us," Thornton continued. "Even after we left and fell under our new command, they continued to support us as one of their own.

"And our relationship with the 10th Mountain Division is second to none," she added. "Every time we have reached out, they have been there for us. It's a great comfort to me."

Randy Sitterly, NEC configuration manager, and the individual responsible for compiling data for submitting this year's awards package, said he couldn't agree more.

"I think the one thing that really stands out is our relationship with the 10th Mountain Division," Sitterly said. "We have an outstanding relationship with the garrison as well. But we get a lot of visitors here … who have really commented on our relationship with the Soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, which is why we're here.

"The Soldiers who report to the 10th Mountain Division from other installations have commented on it, and how the relationship we have here is outstanding," he added.

Also proud of their unique relationship is Lt. Col. Jeff Schroeder, assistant chief of staff, G-6.

"(We) have a phenomenal relationship that has been forged over (many) years," Schroeder said. "(And) winning both the 93rd Signal Brigade and 7th Signal Command NEC of the Year honors is a true testament to the professionalism, hard work and dedication to the warfighter that Fort Drum NEC personnel exude every day.

"They are a passionate and motivated organization that bends over backwards to support (Soldiers)," he added. "They are special, and set themselves apart from their peers for one reason -- they care."

Not just computers

Formerly managed by the Installation Management Command and known as Directorates of Information Management, all NECs in the Eastern U.S. were taken over by 93rd Signal Brigade in 2009, while those in the West went to 106th Signal Brigade at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

In addition to desktop support for division and garrison assets, NEC operations encompass a lot more at Fort Drum.

"There are a lot of other things at the end of that wire," Sitterly said. "For example, the wire that goes from here to a water tower: if that water tower springs a leak, there's a system in place that notifies Public Works. Without that network behind it, that would never happen."

One area again evaluated by judges during this year's competition was in how NECs Armywide have progressed toward the Global Network Enterprise Construct end state.

GNEC, a streamlined, centralized system aimed at providing the warfighter with the capabilities to quickly retrieve secure data, is more of a concept than an actual thing or place, Sitterly explained.

"The method behind it is a Soldier can take his laptop and plug it in here and then he can go to war and plug it in down range and not know the difference," he said.

The mission of all NECs is to execute command, control, communications, computers and information management (C4IM), which is a part of the infrastructure designed to support, most importantly, the warfighter.

Thornton said her team's collaboration with Schroeder and his staff at the G-6 has pushed NEC capabilities to a whole new level.

"We enjoy a great working relationship with the division," she said. "We've already accomplished some great capabilities for training the warfighter."

The most obvious example of that is the new Unit Hub Node set up behind NEC headquarters on post, a consolidated effort with the G-6 that came online earlier this year.

"It allows the warfighter to dock their tactical vehicle and pull all of their services from the NEC," Thornton said. "We're pretty proud of this."

She said UHNs can provide local service to the warfighter down range or act as a training mechanism, simply enabling Soldiers to pull up, plug in and draw real-time services via satellite or a fiber infrastructure.

Thornton said because satellite time is very expensive, Soldiers may turn off the "bird" and use fiber, which simulates the same environment. The fiber network, installed across the installation over the past few years, was completed last fall.

The UHN is hooked directly into the NEC. Soldiers can pull local services such as the NIPR (nonsecure network), SIPR (secure network) and DSN (Defense Switched Network) through a Joint Network Node, according to Dave Davidson, chief of Network and Switching Division.

"This is truly a train-as-you-fight environment," Davidson said. "They pull fresh real-world services, put them up, they bring them down and into their command post-type scenarios."

As an example, Davidson said if the 10th Mountain Division was called on to respond to a natural disaster, they could use the equipment to access Fort Drum command and control services.

"So they would be right on the installation's network, even though they are in Virginia or wherever," he said.

Security postures

The UHN also helps Soldiers keep their vehicles up to speed by ensuring all patches and updates on their equipment are continually renewed.

Thornton said electronic "patches," which are continuously sent to equipment throughout Fort Drum, are one of the many security measures employed at the NEC.

"Security patches come out because the operating system on a computer can become vulnerable after a period of time," Thornton said of so-called "zero-day exploits," which the hacking community looks for when assessing the vulnerability of a system.

"Maintaining critical services isn't always a glamorous business," she said. "A computer purchased for home use is removed from the box and plugged into the Internet, and off you go.

"Here," Thornton continued, "we take that computer out of the box and the first thing we do is pull that operating system off of it. We build a new image. We put applications on that image. We add a script, which allows you to log on to the network. Then we scan the computer to make sure we didn't miss anything.

"Then, the first time you turn on that machine it goes into a secure space, where we have another device that analyzes that machine," she added. "It's to make sure that machine is allowed on this backbone. If something is out of sync, it's quarantined."

Sitterly pointed out that change management, along with Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL), which are major roles of his functions at the NEC, also are critical factors in preventing large-scale crises.

"The computer user plugs the computer in, and it just works," he said. "ITIL is everything that happens behind the scenes. The goal of ITIL is to not let you know it's there. It just works."

Sitterly gave the analogy of a shirt being dropped off at a laundry mat.

"You expect to get your shirt back in a few days," he said. "You don't care what it takes. You don't care that there are chemicals that have to go through environmental tests to be disposed of after the shirt is clean, and how much that costs, or what licensing is involved in obtaining that chemical.

"There are a lot of things going on to get Google to pop up on your computer."

Thornton also emphasized how much ITIL and other processes have benefitted the NEC.

"It really has made our business better," she said. "We have become more proficient. When we document everything, we know what is going on in our environment."

Thornton said the speed and number of changes in the information technology field have been profound over the past decade or so. She said it was not long ago that the computer was something on a desk to be used for administrative purposes.

"Now, it is clearly a weapons system," she said. "And data is the ammunition.

"It's an exciting environment to be working in," she added. "I think everybody here feels the same way. And the tactical piece, and supporting the warfighter, is very exciting to us right now."

Thornton went on to say that the NEC of the Year award for her personally was extremely gratifying. She said it acknowledged the positive impact she has on lives, both in and out of the NEC, but especially on those Soldiers who have dedicated their lives to protecting her and her family.

Sitterly said he and his colleagues recognize that as well. He noted that one reason they work so hard is to support the warfighter while also making their boss proud.

"It's very easy to walk out the doors at the end of the day with a sense of pride," Sitterly said. "That shines right through our director and to us. It's easy for any one of us in the NEC to go that extra mile and do a good job, because we have good motivation from the top."