Go code it on the mountain
Rapid software development methods help NORAD to remain agile
At NORAD, 3 a.m. is just another hour on duty.
The people standing watch at the North American Aerospace Defense Command must remain alert and vigilant 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. NORAD watch floor crews continuously scan our skies for inbound missiles and unidentified aircraft.
The NORAD system, located at the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is always online, with direct connections to command centers at both the White House and 24 Sussex, the residence of the Canadian prime minister. Should a missile be launched at North America, there are combat commanders at USSTRATCOM and USNORTHCOM or NORAD, who will vet any potential attack to determine the appropriate response.
“Over the past three-plus years, Raytheon has maintained and operated the critical systems that make up NORAD,” said Dave Fuino, Raytheon’s NISSC program manager, adding that his team works in close collaboration with military personnel. “In short, NORAD is a system that can’t fail.”
Raytheon’s maintenance and modernization program is called the NORAD Cheyenne Mountain Complex - Integrated Tactical Warning/Attack Assessment, or NCMC-ITWAA, and Space Support Contract. It’s called NISSC, for short.
The system uses Agile, a rapid software development method used by many consumer technology companies.
Every 120-180 days, the Raytheon team delivers an update or enhanced capability to NISSC, according to Rick Rabold, Raytheon’s NISSC software lead.
“Similar software deployments used to take 18 to 24 months,” he said. “In terms of missile warning, that time difference could have a major implications. We never want decision-makers waiting on us.”
When Raytheon started work on the NISSC contract in 2016, the systems were designed, built and maintained using a software development process known as the “waterfall” method, in which development followed a linear sequence from one stage to the next — a process that was slow and allowed minimal user feedback.
Software developers would code miles away from the actual operators using pre-defined specifications. That software would then be delivered as fully complete. By the time it was deployed, the operator who ordered the original fix or new tool may not have been the operator who was currently assigned to use the system, triggering possible redesigns for the next delivery that in some cases, might be years away.
“Imagine you order a new car in 2019 with all the bells and whistles. It’s going to take the car maker 18 months from the time you place your order until you’re driving the car,” said Deanna Loreti, Raytheon’s NISSC software technical lead. “As soon as you start driving your new car, you see the 2020 base model, and it’s way cooler than the car you just got. Unfortunately, you’re stuck in that car because of the agreement you made with the automaker. That’s how waterfall worked before.”
Agile development methods are now being used across a wide range of Raytheon’s defense and intelligence programs. In many cases, updates can be coded, tested and deployed in a matter of months, a significant decrease from the multi-year cycles that predated the change.
“And when you’re working on something as important as detecting missile attacks on our homeland,” Fuino said, “that’s a pace you absolutely have to meet.”