Securing data and communications at remote experimental facility
Protecting sensitive information has always been critical to Lawrence Livermore’s national security missions. In the digital age, a well-guarded door is not enough. For years, Weapons and Complex Integration (WCI) has used iSRD—short for Integrated Secret Restricted Data—to manage access to classified information. Similar systems are utilized across the Department of Energy (DOE) complex to facilitate collaboration between laboratories, plants, and strategic partners.
But collaboration was not quite as easy in the remote, dusty part of southern Nevada known as the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS, formerly known as the Nevada Test Site). For decades there, researchers and support staff from around the DOE complex have worked together to advance a wide variety of national missions, including stockpile stewardship, environmental programs, and defense and civil technologies. But until last year, iSRD terminals at NNSS were too few and far between; they were distant from important experiments, delaying collaboration and making timely data transfer challenging.
“It’s a big portion of Nevada,” says WCI Deputy Information Technology (IT) Manager Marc Stearman of the 1,360-square-mile facility, which stretches from north of Las Vegas to just south of Tonopah, Nevada. “If you were doing experiments deep into the site and you needed to take some of that data and interface with the classified network, it would take you an hour’s drive just to get to the terminal, and then an hour back.”
In 2018 and with the support of several Computing staff, WCI funded and managed a project that extended the iSRD system to its employees at NNSS, earning the team a 2018 Director’s Institutional Operational Excellence Award. Today, sensitive data from experiments with national-security focus can be transferred quickly and securely over the iSRD network, instead of on CDs, DVDs, or USB drives that had to be physically transported with enhanced controls.
The team overcame many obstacles before the project could be declared a success. For example, in sparsely occupied Nevada, connecting to high-bandwidth, secure, and speedy Internet access is no simple task. Some experimental data sets can grow into hundreds of gigabytes.
“Some of the biggest challenges were network speed and access,” says Stearman. “We had to interface with several network providers to find where the bottlenecks were and make sure the equipment was upgraded for the proper speeds.”
Supporting the installation of iSRD was not a foregone conclusion, either. Only two Lawrence Livermore IT employees (Scott Richardson and Brian Musick) are stationed at NNSS, making a large network of on-site storage and access terminals unwieldy to maintain. Along with Stearman, WCI Information Technology Manager Garry Schmerer and several colleagues devised a virtual terminal solution, allowing data to be kept at Livermore’s main site where more staff is available to support it. Only the computer screens and interfaces exist at NNSS, with data racing back and forth through a wide variety of secure telecommunications providers.
“There was a good deal of effort involved, from network expansion and troubleshooting network speeds, to installation of facilities and equipment and architecting a desktop computer solution,” says Stearman.
There are plans to extend iSRD even further to other parts of NNSS, but for now, the improved ability for scientists and support staff in Nevada to more quickly share information with colleagues across DOE has reaped benefits for the security of the United States. With the security and speed of iSRD now extended to one of the nation’s most important experimental sites, collaborators are more agile than ever—and they no longer have to drive hours across the desert to use a secure computer.
Photo above, courtesy of Nevada Field Office: The NNSS stretches across a large swath of southern Nevada, where a wide-ranging team of scientists, engineers, and staff from across the DOE work toward national security goals. A group poses beside the Sedan Crater during a 2018 tour of NNSS. The Sedan test was a nuclear explosion detonated as part of Project Plowshare.