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Video conferencing systems help NATO keep the peace

An extensive video conferencing deployment helps employees and partners at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) collaborate responding to world conflicts.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has one key mission: to protect its 28 member countries across North America and Europe using political and military means. Keeping the peace doesn't happen without close collaboration, and video conferencing systems play a big role in accomplishing that goal at NATO.

In this edition of The Subnet, we catch up with Gus Mommers, branch head of conferencing management services in the NATO Communications and Information Agency. Mommers manages the video conferencing deployment on NATO's unclassified network, used by its civilian employees and the military personnel on loan from their member countries.

How do you use video conferencing systems at NATO?

Gus Mommers: Within NATO, we have a few closed networks. We have the NATO restricted network [for unclassified communications] and the NATO secret network [for classified data], and on both of those networks we have video conferencing. I'm in charge of the internal network, which is the NATO restricted network, so that means providing video conferencing for our staff members within the agency dispersed in three major locations: The Hague, Brussels and Mons, Belgium. There are also 32 satellite locations around the world; one of those is in Norfolk [Virginia], and another is in the Pentagon.

We're using about 90% of the entire range of products from Polycom in this network. We're using everything from the smallest pieces -- from a soft client that goes on a laptop or iOS device, that being iPhone 6s at the moment and Apple iPads -- to desktop units, to the 310 and 500 Group Series for one or two people in an office, to bigger versions like the Group Series 500 and 700, where teams can collaborate in front of two or three screens. We also use immersive telepresence rooms with three screens, and the latest addition to the Polycom family, Centro.

Why is video conferencing such a priority for NATO?

Gus MommersGus Mommers

Mommers: Saving money is the main driver, at least in corporate Europe at the moment. The only thing that we hear from our board of directors is, "You have to save money. You have to save money." And saving money means not having to send our staff members constantly all over the world to attend meetings. Of course, people like to travel and go to meetings in person, but more and more meetings are taking place using video conferencing. Because of the technology I'm providing, they can stay in their office and have their meeting [using our video conferencing systems], and they don't lose as much time.

What's required on the backend to support all this?

Mommers: We have to make sure our bandwidth is sufficient, which would hamper operations [if it wasn't]. We have to make sure there's quality of service on our session border controllers. The good thing is all the new technologies that are coming out are demanding less and less bandwidth.

There are a lot of things we have to do with monitoring everything. You can't just say, ‘This is it, and let's run it.' You have to keep monitoring it and make improvements.

What kind of security requirements does NATO have when it comes to new technology?

Mommers: There are two accreditation policies that any vendor has to go through when it wants to sell its products to NATO. If it's in the NATO restricted network, then the vendor has to seek accreditation from one of the 28 NATO nations' national security agency; 99.9% of companies that reside in the U.S. would go to the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) to seek endorsement or accreditation for their products. They would send their products to a special lab somewhere in the U.S.

If the product has to go on the NATO secret network, there is another element of accreditation that is added to that. The company would still have to go to their national security agencies, and mind you, that can be any of the 28 NATO nations' security agencies. It doesn't have to be the one you reside in. So they would still have to go there and ask them for an endorsement for that level. That would then mean the NSA would have to request a NATO secret endorsement from an organization that is called SECAN -- the Systems Security and Evaluation Agency -- which resides in Fort Meade, in the Washington, D.C., area. It's a NATO entity, but it's manned by U.S. staff. So it depends on the product, but they would then evaluate the product and endorse it yes or no for use on NATO secret networks.

What's your biggest challenge these days?

Mommers: At the moment, the biggest challenge is to keep securing the funds every year to be innovative. For the most part, the challenge is to convince my management to be innovative, to keep investing because if you keep investing, ultimately it will result in savings. But sometimes you just have to invest before you can reach any savings.  

Tell us about your career in IT. How'd you get into this role?

Mommers: I've been thrown into this from the deep end [of unified communications] since 2012. Before that, for the last 25 years, I was a cybersecurity engineer, so that's where my background is. Before that, I was in the military, after which I worked a couple of years for a mobile phone company, Vodafone, doing 3G and 4G technology.

I never planned to go into technology, either. I studied history, and afterwards I studied business processes. It just happened.

Here's our rotating pop culture question: What's your favorite book?

Mommers: One of my favorite writers at the moment is Jeffrey Archer. He was a member of the House of Lords in the U.K. who served time in Her Majesty's prison. He's writing a series of books at the moment -- the first one is Only Time Will Tell -- but one of my favorite books from him is As the Crow Flies.

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