Software-Based Military

The Matzpen software development unit, operating under the Lotem Unit, is responsible for the development of major software projects - among the most substantial in IDF history. A glimpse into the IDF’s largest software house

The Matzpen Unit is considered the largest software house in the IDF. The Unit operates under the Lotem Unit within the IDF C4I Directorate and includes hundreds of programmers, system analyzers, characterization specialists and project leaders, all charged with providing software solutions to the IDF Ground Arm, GHQ and other elements. “In 2003, when the C4I Directorate was established, a new effort was launched with the intention of regulating the C4I field,” explains Colonel Avner Ziv, who established the Unit and headed it ever since. Ziv is about to complete his service term after nearly 30 years in uniform. “It was understood that everything should be done in an integrated, holistic manner. In 2013 the Matzpen Unit was established in the context of the process designated “Tzofan He’Atid” (future code, in Hebrew), led by the Head of the C4I Directorate.”

Returning C3 Home

The Unit handles an extensive range of tasks, including tasks regarded as ‘major’, like the development of the C3 system Tirat Ha’Agam, used by the Chief of Staff in the conduct of operations, and the IDF’s ERP. In emergencies, the Unit also provides software services to the combat elements. The Unit has recently won the Chief of Staff’s Award for Excellence in the technological entrepreneurship category, for the development of a classified operational C3 system expected to affect the IDF’s target engagement capacity.

One of the most significant moves made by the Unit is referred to as “returning the C3 home”. This was a decision by IDF to return the on-going development of the C3 system Tirat Ha’Agam into the IDF instead of leaving it in the hands of the Ness Company, through an outsourcing agreement, as was the case in previous years. According to sources at the C4I Directorate, this move will result in substantial savings to the state (a soldier costs less than an employee) as well as in an improvement of the system’s operational capabilities. Off the record, sources at the C4I Directorate say that the young people recruited into the IDF bring with them a spirit of entrepreneurship, enthusiasm and innovation that is hard to find in the civilian industries, even the defense industries. “One should bear in mind that most of the talented people find themselves, upon their discharge from IDF, in the world of start-up companies rather than with the civilian companies that provide software development services to the IDF,” says Ziv.

“The IDF found itself in a certain budget reality, and we realized we must organize differently,” says Ziv. “This was one catalyst. The other catalyst was the conclusion that the internal work method used in the IDF can enable the adoption of new development methodologies and would provide us with a faster access to services. When you operate opposite a civilian industry, you are subject to procurement procedures and approvals that hinder the development process and execution is much more awkward. It was important to us to remain relevant.”

The Direction: Open Source Code

The C4I Directorate made the decision to enter the world of open-source code. It will not happen is a single day, but the process had begun with non-critical systems. Last August, the Directorate developed an IDF platform, Yohannan, similar to GitHub, whose objective is development and inter-unit sharing of code segments. Last year, the IDF Computer School launched the first training courses using the programming languages Ruby on Rails and Python, both of which are intended for the world of open-source code. “We reached the conclusion that the world of proprietary software advances at a slower rate compared to the world of open-source code, which is common on the Internet. The directions at which the Internet is heading are more suitable to our operational profile,” explains Ziv.

The people of the Matzpen Unit are proud of the fact that they succeeded in creating a working environment similar to the spirit of a start-up company – within the IDF. This innovative spirit had its impact, and this year, open-source code elements have been incorporated in operational systems. The first operational system under the new development platform addresses the issue of transportation in emergencies. It should be able to cope with the technological challenge of mobilizing thousands of transporters throughout the country in real time, during a wartime situation. Another system will be launched in about two months, for the benefit of the EW layout.

Another operational system that currently undergoes partial conversion to open-source code is Tirat Ha’Agam. Major Roy Weitzfeld is responsible for the development of the system, and he explained that the new version of the system will look and behave like an Internet application. According to Weitzfeld, one of the challenges associated with the implementation of the system is its assimilation on the ground. Whereas the IDF rely on reservist units, when the reservist officers arrive in the field, they need a system that looks and feels like the applications they are accustomed to at home and in the workplace. Otherwise, it takes them a long time to learn how to use the military software tools.

The new Tirat Ha’Agam system looks like a website operated through a standard Google Chrome browser. The user opens the system which takes about thirty seconds to load, and as long as the browser tab remains open, the system will send only the changes to the server. In this way, the Matzpen Unit achieves uninterrupted and fast operation of the system. The primary tab of the system includes a map of Israel with IDF elements deployed on the ground displayed in green and enemy forces displayed in red. In this way, the officers can see, through a simple graphic display, the moves of each side and plan the war. If the user wants to analyze information, he may open a new tab and access an engine that is very similar to Google Analytics, which offers a range of real-time information analysis options.

“We made a decision about a year ago to develop the future C3 systems on the basis of open-source code. The decision made by the commander of the Lotem Unit and the department head was to return the C3 to the IDF. The only project still being performed outside of IDF was Tirat Ha’Agam”, says Ziv. “It was not just the process of returning this particular system, but also the establishment of an organizational environment that would enable us to accomplish a quantum leap. We established here a substantial C3 group that had not existed before. It took us six months to establish the infrastructures and organizational elements, and another year to develop the new generation of the new system. The development of the new version of Project Tirat Ha’Agam is expected to continue for another eighteen months in several development cycles, alongside the actual assimilation on the ground.”

The Transition to Cloud Computing

In the IDF they are considering a transition of the military to a cloud computing infrastructure in the context of the relocation to the Negev. At the Matzpen Unit, they are not waiting for it to happen. Instead, they are already preparing the software infrastructure for the day after. “Our development infrastructure is already adapted to cloud computing,” explains Ziv. “The IDF is not going to use public clouds within the foreseeable future. As far as we are concerned, the intention is to implement a private cloud, and a tender will be issued soon.

“Unlike a civilian organization, our challenges pertain less to the processing power flexibility aspect. Most of our systems are designed for maximum loads. We are aware of the personnel complement of the IDF and what it takes to operate it in terms of IT resources. We are aware of the number of users and the scope of the information to be handled. Therefore, for most of the systems we can plan the capacity fairly accurately. In the context of the cloud computing issue, the agility of the IT infrastructure is important to us. During Operation Protective Edge, for example, we developed modules ‘on the fly’. This requires fast adaptation of the computer infrastructure.”

Another aspect addressed by the Unit is the sharing of information by the various organs of the IDF. Operation Protective Edge was an example of the inherent capabilities of tactical connectivity. The people at the Matzpen Unit understand that the life cycle of targets in asymmetrical scenarios is becoming shorter, so they aspire for a faster response. What they have now will probably not be good enough in the coming wars. “We are currently working on a program designated Network IDF which takes the development world to the next level. While until today we settled for communication links subject to tight regulation that stems from certain work procedures, today we understand that it does not enable us to attain the speed of response we wanted. Now we deal with the removal of partitions between the various organs. We would like to see the operational elements of one organ accessing the computer services of another organ in a secured, transparent manner,” says Ziv. “The objective is to improve the access provided to operational elements to cross information.”

Apparently, the people at the Matzpen Unit know what they are talking about. During the actual fighting in the context of Operation Protective Edge, operational gaps were encountered at the battalion level, so the people of the Unit developed modules and delivered them to the combat echelons in record time. “If the operational echelon needed certain bits of information, we developed such capabilities ad-hoc. We adopted an initiating, bold approach. Bear in mind that it was wartime and that this is a military organization. This was hardly ever done in the IDF before.”

IDF ERP

Another activity the Matzpen Unit handles is the IDF ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning). The rationale of this program is efficiency improvement and minimizing duplicity in IDF development activities. It is reasonable to assume that another catalyst was the last report by the State Comptroller, which stated that the IDF were not doing enough with regard to the competence of the reservist layout, among other things – with regard to the outfitting of the reservist divisions during the mobilization process when it takes place under fire. Another revelation of that report points to incorrect reporting. Quote: “The conclusive weighted situation appraisal in the operational competence reports of the mobilization layout, according to which the mobilization layout was in a high state of readiness, is favorably biased and does not present a complete and sufficiently founded status picture,” states the report.

Indeed, the Matzpen Unit is hard at work transferring the IDF from the Oracle environment to a SAP environment through a project whose cost is estimated at millions of ILS. The official scope has not been announced. In the context of this process, as Ziv told us, a special administration headed by a Colonel will be established for a period of five years, to lead the project. By the end of the process, the IDF is expected to scrap many old systems, thereby saving some of the money invested in the transition to the new system. “We will transfer to a central platform in a more efficient manner. Once the administration has done its job, a small group will remain active to maintain the ERP,” explains Ziv.

“Today, for example, personnel management systems are being developed by the IAF, the Corps of Intelligence and the Navy. The idea is to have a single GHQ organ to ensure manpower and financial savings. On the other hand, in the context of the program we want to improve the solution for the IDF soldiers as well. We included a new system in the budget planning. We have also launched a platform for soldiers and commanders, so that they may be provided with all of the services in a convenient form, as well as tools that would enable the commander to keep in touch with his reservist unit on a regular basis. Pursuant to the implementation of the ERP, the IDF will be a more efficient organization.”