Exonaut: Securely hosting, developing and deploying software for extreme, mission-critical conditions

2020-09-18

From the Arctic tundra, African Savannahs to the office; deploying software in extreme conditions

Development, deployment, hosting, security and UX, are at the core of any successful software provider, and it’s no different for 4C Strategies. However, what is a little different at 4C is the conditions that our software has to perform under, and the lengths our support team go to, to make sure our customers get the most out of Exonaut®, always.

4C Strategies’ Chief Information Officer, Johan Wurtz and Senior Consultant Neill Bayley tell us about hosting sensitive data in the cloud, travelling with servers across the African plains, deploying a secure network in a rain forest, and developing a SaaS environment for use in highly regulated industries.

Johan, you’ve been working at 4C Strategies for over 10 years. What drives you?

4C Strategies is a great place to work. There’s always a technical challenge that needs solving and I’m fortunate to have great colleagues who want to explore and find the answers. I don’t just mean the technical side of things either. Many 4C consultants use our software together with customers during assignments, their feedback is invaluable when developing the Exonaut roadmap. For instance, in the past decade, Exonaut has grown from a basic reporting tool to an AI-assisted software solution. That’s some journey and it’s far from over. We’re building something unique – a fully integrated readiness platform for capability development, risk management, business continuity, crisis readiness and exercise/training management.

Who typically uses the Exonaut software?

Exonaut is used in highly regulated industries. That may sound a bit dull, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. We use agile methodology and take a customer-centric approach to development. Our customers include banks, communications providers, manufacturers, local and national government, international organisations and the military. They handle extremely sensitive data on a daily basis, some of which is entered into our software. We are responsible for securing this sensitive data while ensuring strict regulations are met. On a lighter note, we’ve developed Android and iOS apps and are introducing machine learning to Exonaut. We also get involved at an operational level with many customers, which means we encounter unique challenges that you don’t get at your average company.

Is there a difference between the military and non-military versions of Exonaut?

At the core, they are the same Commercial-Of-The-Shelf (COTS) product. Some modules are more relevant for the military and others for commercial and public organisations, while the GUI has been designed for easy configuration, so it can be tailored to an organisation’s requirements.

Exonaut is available to all our clients as SaaS in our secure hosted environment. Within the multi-tenant environment, customers share the same physical structure, but there is no cross communication.

 

Exonaut is available to all our clients as SaaS in our secure hosted environment. Within the multi-tenant environment, customers share the same physical structure, but there is no cross-communication. This supports a much more dynamic DevOps process, meaning faster updates, bug fixes, you name it. I’m really proud of the fact that we have developed Exonaut-As-A-Service for organisations with extremely strict security requirements. Exonaut is, of course, available on-prem, physically separated from the internet – which the military often request.

Neil, you’ve been working with military software for 15+ years. Why is Exonaut so well suited for the military?

The military uses our software primarily for training and exercise management. This can be synthetic, virtual or live training, which can be carried out at a base, training camp or temporary location. Since Exonaut is used before, during and after an exercise, it has to work, always, and it has to do so according to the highest security parameters. Integration with High Level Architecture (HLA) framework, amongst others, makes it possible to exchange data with different simulator systems.

We have developed a primary/secondary configuration, whereby a subset of data from a secure primary server can be exported to an offline server for use in remote exercise locations. Once the exercise is complete, the data, plus any newly logged information, is imported back to the primary server before being aggregated.

This must create some serious hosting challenges

Indeed, it does. For one thing, you need to secure the Meta structure so that changes can’t be made to it that would have an impact on the system when exercise data is imported. Also, the system has to support data being imported from multiple secure channels.

How does 4C support the military during exercises?

There isn’t the same level of continuity in the military as in the private or public sector. Soldiers move up the ranks and are posted to different units so not everybody involved in a training exercise is familiar with Exonaut. Therefore, we have an expert delivery team that specialises in supporting military customers. This can be anything from setting up a secure network, to tailoring Exonaut dashboards, to training users on how to get the most from the software.

Of course, this poses its own challenges. For instance, when assisting the military, we are often forbidden from using our laptops for security reasons. This means we have to be extremely well prepared, especially when we go to remote environments.

Tell us a bit more about the remote environments that Exonaut has been deployed in?

The armed forces do a lot of training in austere environments. Sometimes these locations are so remote that a lot of the equipment – including generators, cables, servers, clients, laptops and devices – has to be transported in rugged cases for protection. We’ve flown equipment in commercial aircraft and driven it across dusty and bumpy African savannahs in Land Rovers. We’ve also had to run the equipment in sub-Sahara temperatures, in the middle of summer when the portable air conditioning units have failed. It gets very hot, very quickly in a tent full of servers when it’s 35C outside. That’s when you want to be in sub-zero conditions, but then you face other challenges.

 

“We’ve run equipment in sub-Sahara temperatures, in the middle of summer when the portable air conditioning units have failed. It gets very hot, very quickly in a tent full of servers when it’s 35C outside.”

 

Johan, can you tell us about working in cold-zone conditions?

Unlike at sites around the equator, satellite connections in the Arctic are unreliable due to poor coverage, so you have to account for that. Then there are basic human factors to consider, like everybody will be wearing gloves. What does that mean? Your app should support voice control and the devices have to come with styluses. Some Exonaut app screens purposely have large, dynamically displayed buttons, which are presented based on a user’s permissions, rather than busy screens that can be difficult to navigate.

How do you make sure the equipment arrives safely to a remote destination?

Let’s just say we’ve done enough testing over the years to make sure things arrive intact. We know exactly how to pack sensitive hardware into rugged cases and how much spare equipment is needed if something does go wrong. It’s hard enough to create a well-functioning network in a rain forest when all the equipment has been airdropped to your position. If components are missing or parts stop functioning, it becomes ten times harder. Which is why you always need a Plan B. On one occasion we were told we couldn’t use copper cables due to potential radiation of signals, not an easy problem to solve when you’re in the middle of nowhere, but we solved it.

Moving on from the military, let’s talk more about commercial and governmental organisations?

Although we don’t get the same exciting onsite challenges, we’re just as dedicated to providing a best-in-class solution for them. Exonaut acts as an integral part of an organisation’s business continuity and risk management strategy, and as such it has to facilitate more effective and better decision making. That’s why our own consultants use it during assignments. It has just been used at a large communications provider for defining and increasing business continuity and incident management capabilities. It’s also being used to support many organisations in their COVID-19 responses. And it’s not so long since we were at a large bank to deploy Exonaut on-prem.

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Finally, a question to both of you. What are you working on right now?

Neill: Recently I’ve been installing and configuring Exonaut on several computers remotely. We’ve only just returned to the office due to pandemic restrictions, so there are things we need to catch up on. It’s also a case of figuring out what is the new normal. Typically, I do a lot of configuring of dashboards for customers from data collected via our APIs. We want to present the right data in the best way possible for users to view and analyse it.

 

“We are doing some pretty cool integrations with Microsoft Azure at the moment and developing a range of exciting APIs”

 

Johan: We’re doing some pretty cool integrations with Microsoft Azure and developing a range of exciting APIs, which is taking up a lot of my time at the moment. And, of course, we’re constantly developing the platform. Exonaut is a really cool software to work on if you want to develop your skills.

About Johan Wurtz
Johan joined 4C Strategies in 2008 as the CTO. In 2012, he became CIO. Previous to that he spent 14 years as an infrastructure consultant with assignments at some of Sweden’s largest organisations.

 

About Neill Bayley
Neill has been working with software development and support for many years. He first joined 4C Strategies in 2013 as Tech Support Consultant. Following a brief sabbatical, he returned as a Senior Consultant in 2017.

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