CAMP BLUE DIAMOND, AR RAMADI, Iraq -- The 2nd Marine Division uses the information highway to coordinate and track operations in the Al Anbar Province, a vast desert area about the size of North Carolina. But none of it could be done without a plan; and that’s where Sgt. Keith Palka steps into action.
Palka, a 23-year-old Thomaston, Maine, native is the data plans chief for the division’s communications data section. He and the warrant officer who he works with are the only two Marines in the entire division who control the planning of the Wide Area computer Network across the division’s area of responsibility.
The division’s support and headquarters sections are thousands of Marines strong. Almost every one of them uses a computer to communicate across the stretches of the province. Palka makes it easier, faster and safer to transfer information across the net.
“We generally don’t stick our noses too deep in the other units’ business, but it’s our job to keep the pulse of the WAN and LANs that make up the division’s piece of the MEF enterprise network,” said Palka.
The enterprise network he plans for is the main network umbrella that all of the smaller Local Area Networks fall under. Each camp or regimental combat team works under different networks controlled by a larger one which Palka manages. He’s a little known resource for the service members here who use the networks to send anything from classified documents and mail traffic between sections to the emails back home to family and friends.
“We’re rarely seen, but when something is down on the network, they come looking for me,” said Palka. “The fact is we work hand in hand with other data sections across the entire Marine Expeditionary Force.”
Palka mainly works to keep the speed and service quality up to snuff so that Marines and sailors have a user friendly interface to work on that sends and receives information fast and accurately. He handles the planning process that it takes to upgrade network technology on the LAN, which is then executed by another section.
“Our job is to give the highest availability of internet service possible out here,” said Palka. “It’s very different from being back in the States in garrison setting up a network for a small company of Marines -- or a small business in civilian terms.
“For one, back home there’s no lousy trans’ links to deal with,” he said, speaking data jargon for the quality of information transfer in the desert. “And we don’t have to worry about trucks and tanks running over our wires. When the environment changes, we react to it.”
One of the newest projects Palka is working on is creating two backup sites for the division’s servers – the hub of all intra- and internet services in the area. The servers are essentially suitcase-sized computers, if one could imagine, without monitors or keyboards. They are the mainframes that store and transfer the information that gets passed through the wires. Palka is planning the backup in case of a rocket or mortar attack that might take out the server.
Upgrading systems and managing servers may seem complicated to many, but for Palka and other data Marines like him, it’s simply bliss.
“Another project that is notable is when we did a live upgrade of the system from Windows NT to Windows 2003 earlier this year. It was the first time this has ever been done in the Marine Corps. In the middle of the changeover from 1st Marine Division to 2nd Marine Division, we changed it while the whole division was using the system. There were no negative impacts; nobody even knew we did it – but it was monumental.”
Palka thinks of his job here as being in a big community that maintains the passing and retrieval of information. Without guys and gals like him and the other sections he works with throughout the division’s area of operations, the Marines would have no eyes and ears.
“The main goal of our community is to come together to make a better network exist for the users,” said Palka.