Cloud and streaming technologies are already being used in support of S&T and, although a journey with hurdles, there seems to be a clear direction of travel towards a Cloud approach. MS&T’s Special Correspondent Andy Fawkes reports.

The benefits of public Clouds are well understood and are helping to drive the digital transformation of many organisations, processes and how we access media and data, for work and for play. These can include levering off economies of scale and the latest computing technology, scalability, and faster security updates. 

However, moving to the Cloud is a journey and with the many legacy systems that defence owns and runs it cannot be carried out overnight. A first step is virtualising applications. CAE’s Chief Engineer of Infrastructure Technologies, Tansel Kendir, told MS&T, “Traditionally, almost every application that the simulator ran required its own computer with a room full of computers” and now with virtualisation “today you walk into that same room, you have a single cabinet.”

To reap the full benefits of Cloud technology, however, requires the move into containers and Kubernetes (see A Brief Guide to the Cloud). Kendir explained: “If you containerise applications and go to the Kubernetes you can provide high availability and you can change the resources based on the number of people using it. There are lots of advantages, and when you standardise these things, you can even use the same application for multiple simulators.”

The Cloud can provide a common computational platform with lower upfront and sustainment costs and support highly scalable computing. Rob Solly, Director of Research Partnerships at Improbable Defence, told MS&T, “Simulations can be extremely computationally intensive, particularly large-scale distributed simulations enabled by technologies such as Improbable's Skyral platform, and the elastic scale and high-bandwidth networking provided by Cloud providers enables these use cases whilst reducing total cost of ownership.” Solly also cited other benefits including “development velocity, security and reliability.”

Hadean is a distributed computing company whose ‘North Star’ is to develop technologies for customers “to build applications on the Cloud for the Cloud”, according to its VP Sales (UK), Michael Gunadi. Hadean has been working with a broad range of partners including Microsoft and BAE Systems with applications from gaming to simulation. Gunadi told MS&T that the Cloud “allows us to take the burden off devices and physical simulators and it provides the warfighter with the flexibility to train anywhere on any device and enables a higher-fidelity experience than a single simulator can accommodate in isolation.” Perhaps more fundamentally, Gunadi sees the Cloud and emerging technologies as supporting the digital world or cyber layer that “isn't something that's constrained by kinetic elements; it lives across all (military) domains.” So, for training, the Cloud can “layer in complex digital elements that interact with the kinetic,” Gunadi explained.

Stratus, Cumulus, Cirrus, Defence

CAE’s Kendir was keen to emphasize that for simulation and training there are different types of Cloud to consider. “Commonly, when the term Cloud services/computing is used, everyone thinks of commercial Cloud services provided by Azure, Google, Amazon, etc. – but using Cloud services/computing has a larger meaning.” While these services already have defence use cases, they as yet do not satisfy all defence requirements. One example cited by Kendir is the need for very low latency required by high-fidelity simulation that leads to the “usage of Cloud technology in the form of on-premises equipment.” Also for defence is the security issue, and “the current preferred choice is to use cyber-secure, on-premises Cloud solutions,” Kendir told us. For companies like CAE and their customers, they are exploiting public Clouds but also deploying both local and centralised Cloud technology on private networks.

Bohemia Interactive Simulations (BISim) Chief Commercial Officer, Pete Morrison, similarly told MS&T that Cloud terminology can confuse the discussion. “There can be this misunderstanding that when you say Cloud, people think of Google, but I could simply say ‘Server Rack’,” Morrison said, “so my recommendation to smaller military organizations is to start with a server rack and start using Cloud principles.”

Cloud Use Cases

CAE/USAF SCARS – Under the USAF Simulators Common Architecture Requirements and Standards (SCARS) program, CAE USA are leading an industry team to integrate and standardise USAF aircraft training simulators and support distributed, networked, and cyber-secure mission training. SCARS will provide common standards for simulator design and operation that includes strict cyber-security criteria to enable the USAF to link simulators together, perform remote software updates, and enrich the training environment. With approximately 2,400 simulators across over 300 locations, the USAF SCARS program is supporting the digital transformation of the USAF training footprint by leveraging all of the advantages Cloud computing technologies offer. This will involve both local Clouds and a centralized Cloud, all on the private USAF networks. 

Kendir explained: “SCARS provides local Clouds to run the simulators locally and there is also a centralised Cloud that provides the sustainment for all the sites.” SCARS will enable moving legacy simulator applications to a remotely sustainable On-Premises Equipment (OPE) construct. The OPE provides a virtualised environment with microservices as a local Cloud in support of high-fidelity simulators. The vision “is to move to an ‘Apps Store’ concept with a common applications library provided by the centralised Cloud within the same cyber-secure and private infrastructure,” Kendir told us.

The SCARS effort to standardise USAF simulators is time consuming, but the plan is to “get there in the next 5 to 10 years for all the simulators” and “there will be lots of advantages,” Kendir told MS&T. One such advantage is that it will be possible to sustain all sites, for example cyber-security updates, from a single location and the financial savings from that alone will be considerable.

MAK/VR TheWorld – Modelling and simulation software company MAK Technologies have been exploiting Cloud and streaming technology for five years now. Dan Brockway, MAK VP Marketing, told MS&T that the Cloud enables them to host demonstrations and deliver training and geographic data to their customers. Using Amazon Cloud Services (AWS), they host a secure persistent synthetic environment that is a digital twin of MAK software and training system configurations in their labs in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Orlando, Florida. Once logged in, customers and potential customers can initiate Cloud resources, spin them up and run the entire simulation in the Cloud. As well as being used for demonstrations, the system is used to deliver training courses to customers in the US and around the world. “Our system is hosted on several datacenters, and we can move it to others when we need to get the latency down for users in different locations around the world,” Brockway told us.

MAK also host a persistent terrain data server (VR-TheWorld Server online) so users of their MAK ONE Applications can stream geographic data directly into their applications. If the Internet is not available to customers, the same VR-TheWorld Server capability can be hosted locally.

As for the future, Brockway told MS&T, “There are a few basic challenges that affect any distributed or remotely accessed system: security, cost, latency, performance,” however “as the technology, and frankly the customer base, matures… I feel like there is plenty of room these days to design Cloud deployments into simulation systems. It just takes good system engineering.”

NATO M&S COE/MSaaS – Multi-national access to M&S is perhaps an ideal use case for the Cloud and streaming. The NATO M&S Centre of Excellence community has been collaborating for a number of years on developing M&S as a Service (MSaaS) and exploiting Cloud approaches. Now moving beyond research, the Open Cloud Environment ApplicatioN (OCEAN) was integrated (June 2022) within NATO’s Coalition Warrior Interoperability eXercise (CWIX) to test its MSaaS capability, but also support the wide C2 and network experimentation. OCEAN is a collaboration between the NATO M&S Centre of Excellence, the NATO M&S Group, and the Leonardo company. According to NATO, “OCEAN extends the traditional virtual environments for experimentation, testing and training activities to a dynamic (Cloud-based) environment able to create virtual machines, containers, and virtual networks in isolated or joined sessions.” Leonardo state OCEAN will enable M&S users “to move from distributed, extremely rigid training systems to centralised Cloud-based systems, which will provide on-demand services and be reconfigurable according to customer needs.”

Pitch/Scaling Up – Federating simulation across multiple computing nodes and wide area networks is the bread-and-butter business for Pitch Technologies. Suranga Wickramasekera, Business Development Manager, told MS&T that the Cloud is another extension of this, and citing RAF Gladiator and Exercise Viking as examples “many of our customers are exploiting Cloud platforms and technologies for simulation projects… so they can scale up their solutions without the need to increase the footprint of on-premise hardware.” Pitch itself has its own private Cloud called Global Simulation Arena (GSA) which allows remote students to access a simulation federation without the need for installing on their computers. Pitch are also exploiting public AWS Cloud services in support of instructor-led online training courses.

BISim/Terrain – For Morrison, BISim’s “journey to the Cloud started in 2013 when the US Army SE Core said they wanted the entire planet, they didn't want postage-stamp terrain in VBS3.” This data distribution challenge pointed to a Cloud solution and BISim started building the VBS Blue engine with the “idea that at some point in the future our customers will want this whole-earth capability and Cloud-enabled simulation will become a reality,” said Morrison. 

Building on its Cloud expertise, BISim’s latest product is Mantle ETM (Enterprise Terrain Management) that delivers a (local and public) Cloud technology-based terrain pipeline tool, allowing users to take terrain data from different sources and delivering a base globe to multiple simulations or visualisation runtimes such as Unreal, VBS and Unity. Morrison explained that if “we have a crater event in one engine, you see it in the other engine.” BISim already have a launch customer for Mantle ETM and basing it on Cloud technologies they expect it to be future-proof. Morrison continued: “With containerised services you could come and use a completely new game engine 10 years from now and all the terrain data that you're building today can still be employed with the new engine.”

BISim is a recently acquired subsidiary of BAE Systems. 

Standards On the (Near) Horizon

We are already seeing extensive use of Cloud technologies, and now distributed simulation standards are evolving to exploit them. The Simulation Interoperability Standards Organization (SISO) is expected to publish the new High-Level Architecture (HLA) 4 standard later in 2022, including support for Cloud-friendly programming languages, easier containerisation and orchestration of simulation apps, and cyber-hardening standardisation. 

Pitch’s Wickramasekera told MS&T, “Long term, we expect more and more simulation services developed to run in the Cloud environments and make full use of elastic resources and other services like load balancing, fault tolerance, security orchestration, and so on.” Standards will enable greater use of the Cloud but Wickramasekera cautioned, “Many training networks are still constrained at point of need… so one of the big challenges is to enable training in bandwidth-constrained defence networks.”

BISim’s Morrison also envisages a more Cloud-based future, and the company are getting ready for it “because we're seeing customer demand.” He explained: “The next VBS will effectively have two modes. One will be similar to what we have now with VBS4, but there will be a separate Cloud-enabled web browser mode so you can set up your training scenario, execute the simulation and do your terrain development, all in the web browser.”

Morrison also revealed that the company are developing “VBS Workers”, which provide a containerised version of the core VBS AI and simulation, making it possible to scale up VBS entity counts far beyond the normal limits of a VBS multiplayer scenario. The Cloud-based approach will enable VBS Workers to run on any scalability framework and “you could have 100,000 of these Workers to get vastly increased numbers of high-fidelity VBS artificial intelligent entities to support whatever simulation activity you're doing, and that’s for pattern of life and military AI,” Morrison told us.

In the early days of the Cloud there was a reluctance in some quarters as to its viability, but MS&T has seen that Cloud-based technologies are now being extensively used in S&T applications. There are challenges in the cost of transforming legacy systems and sometimes it might not be the most cost-effective approach. Also, wider defence digital investment and security policies may put up barriers. But longer term, applications and technologies that can fully exploit the power of the Cloud and that are ‘Cloud native’ offer many benefits for the S&T community, whether they are run on a private or public network or both. How much defence decision makers need to encourage and support the trend to the Cloud is for debate, but ultimately it seems to be a decision around where are your computing resources best placed, how much are you willing to share them, and your approach to Cloud software standards.