With a mission to strengthen our nation’s security by building and maintaining infrastructure, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is a federal agency under the Department of Defense with approximately 38,000 civilians and soldiers delivering engineering services in more than 130 countries worldwide. One of the key responsibilities of USACE is to dredge America’s waterways to support the movement of commodities across the country.
Nearly 25,000 miles of waterways and channels and 400 ports, harbors, and turning basins comprise the United States’ national waterway network. These marine thoroughfares are critical to national security as well as commerce — two out of three jobs are indirectly impacted by the dredging trade.
As important as they are, few of these waterways are naturally deep enough for ship traffic. They require excavation and periodic dredging to maintain a channel. And they must be carefully managed to ensure they remain passable while also preventing potential damage from dredging to surrounding infrastructure or wildlife. Given the scope of the waterway network and number of dredging service contractors to oversee, USACE must rely on an automated system for remote monitoring and documentation.
Modernizing to advance mission
USACE’s Dredge Quality Management (DQM) program holds the responsibility for monitoring the Corps’ dredging projects and delivering timely data access. This 24/7 function collects, stores and analyzes vast amounts of data from on-board sensors about dredging activities, operations and efficiency. The data is critical not only for the real-time insights into dredge vessel operations, but for improving business practices, ensuring environmental compliance, and dredging industry research and development.
With increasing cybersecurity requirements and a switch to the more secure Department of Defense Information Network (DODIN), DQM found the tightened security was slowing their software delivery process and compromising their overall mission.
DQM uses software that sends data from a vessel every 10 seconds. On-board sensors track what the vessel is doing and how it is performing. The software does a health check on the data and all the sensors, sends it through to a web server and from there to a queue where it gets processed and loaded into a relational database for the real-time insights critical to operational safety and efficiency.
With more stringent security requirements delaying software delivery, DQM knew they needed to modernize their platform with the latest cloud technologies to advance their mission. But they had to do it while still maintaining strict security and allowing for integration with legacy architectures.
Azure was the clear solution. Offering world-class security and the broadest compliance, Azure enables government agencies to modernize legacy infrastructure with a truly flexible, compliant, and intelligent cloud. In addition, Azure offers regions that support data classification at all impact levels up through classified secret, which provided the option to modernize in a way that meets DOD data security standards.
Solving data challenges
Working with the Microsoft team, DQM deployed several cloud services to solve their data challenge.
DQM integrated Azure IoT SDK into existing on-board software for sensor aggregation and into existing web service for data ingestion. They implemented IoT Hub for telemetry ingestion and device registration. Additionally, Azure serverless functions were used to parse large amounts of data from Cosmos DB to Oracle DB, providing the ability to scale the process to handle larger ingestion rates without having to rearchitect.
“Basically, what we did was we turned our on-board software into an IoT endpoint,” says Irven Ingram who has been working in Government since 2001 and is now a USACE GIS Technical Lead. “We’re sending data via IoT Hub. Then Event Hubs puts it into a Cosmos database and from there it’s getting parsed and loaded into Oracle. So we’ve revamped our process and made it more secure by using IoT Hub and Event Hub in our Azure cloud.”
Once the data is ingested, DQM uses Power BI to visualize the data.
The combined result is that they are finally able to see a consolidated view of dredging operations within a specified geolocation, despite the fact that ship types are owned and operated by different contractors. In addition to providing faster access to onboard data, this allows the Corps to manage operations for a program in one dashboard.
Evaluating cloud choice
Still, with tightening security requirements prompting DQM’s push to modernize, security was equally important in their cloud choice. Azure is the trusted cloud exclusive to government, with world-class security and advanced threat protection services to protect the full spectrum of government data, applications, and hardware. For DQM, products such as Azure Security and Log Analytics and features including single sign-on were important, but the key was Azure Government’s DoD Impact Level 4 certification.
“L4 was a big selling point,” says Ingram. “Because Microsoft has gone through the accreditation to get Azure Government in L4 we can use so many of these technologies that we wouldn’t be able to dream of touching if were on-premises doing this work. But the fact that it’s in our L4 environment, we can just start working on it. We can evaluate software much faster and much better now.”
Speed is another important benefit. With Azure Government, DQM can evaluate as well as develop software faster. Azure App Services has allowed them to quickly build out what would have taken them more than a year to develop from scratch. Getting workloads into production enabled agility that wasn’t possible before. “To go from development to test to user acceptance using App Services is much more streamlined,” says Ingram
DQM’s cloud story doesn’t end here. They’re continuing to work on implementing additional advancements. “Having access to the software and the environment, it’s like being free,” says Ingram. “If you need to evaluate something that’s going to help you do a better job of meeting your mission goals, you can. That’s the huge advantage the cloud has.”