Federal top secret network opens for business

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Federal top secret network opens for business

Collaboration service to launch after $17m investment.

The Federal Government plans to open a commercial security-accredited online collaboration service on November 1.

Named Connecting Spaces, the hosted service enables real time collaboration and web conferencing for users and conversations at a RESTRICTED level. By mid-2013 is expected to be accredited to the more sensitive CONFIDENTIAL (Protected) level.

It will then be accredited for all public sector information below the top-level SECRET (Highly Protected) level.

For the last 12 months, the service has been limited to 700 registered users at 52 organisations  in the biosecurity sector, enabling collaboration between government, research and industry.

It allows for secure access to national and international networks – enabling geographically-dispersed uses to engage in video conferencing, shared access to national repositories of data, collaboration on research and other security sensitive activities.

Administered by the CSIRO, Connecting Spaces will now be offered as a commercial service to security-qualified organisations under a subscription-based model.

Dr Joanne Banyer, CEO at the Australian Biosecurity Intelligence Network told iTnews a commercial flavour of the network was concieved due to cross-sectoral interest and demand.

“We have started to support trial use beyond biosecurity, including the Australian Crime Commission connecting to Federal, State and NZ police agencies," Banyer said. "Customs has also expressed interest.

“There has been a long standing need in Australia for networking across organisations, to be able to share information and collaborate real-time,” she said.

The tech

Connecting Spaces is hosted on servers located at a secure Australian site and operated by staff  seed-funded by the Commonwealth's Department of Innovation (DIISRTE) as part of the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS).

The servers are housed in two commercial data centres accredited as a “secure area” with the requisite 24x7 onsite security, fire detection and suppression, CCTV surveillance, logging and access mechanisms, UPS, generators, multiple gates and physical barriers to entry.

The service was built by adapting off-the-shelf products collaboration products such as Oracle WebCenter and Adobe Connect, alongside several open source tools.

For security reasons, the Government has not disclosed any details of what hardware or networking equipment the service is hosted on.

Some $17 million was invested over four years to establish the service. Over $6 million was spent on the hardware and software, and the service has an ongoing annual operating budget of just under $3 million.

At the height of the build, the project hired 30 staff, but it has now been trimmed to 13 operational staff distributed across Australia - which includes IT specialists, client support, business development and corporate administration/management.

Operations staff have been security cleared to the SECRET Level.

Target users

The system and its operation are designed to meet the requirements of the Australian Governments IT Security Manual (ISM) and the Protective Security Manual (PSM).

In June 2012, the service was accredited to accept information up to a RESTRICTED level. But under a revised Australian Security Classification System, Connecting Spaces is undergoing a PROTECTED accreditation process, which Dr Banyer expects to receive by June 2013.

Connecting Spaces will accommodate Fedlink and network-to-network VPN links from customers unable to join the Fedlink network.

Scale is not a barrier - the service will be available for everything from small scale collaboration (one and two users) to large scale (thousands of users).

Dr Banyer concedes there other providers in the market offer some elements of the new platform.

“But there is nothing else out there that offers what Connecting Spaces offers. Nothing is as highly integrated,” she said.

"It’s a system that builds everybody’s capability but also enables them to share the cost of maintaining that into the future."

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