Cloud changes the game for DOD battlefield comms

Cloud and IT policies in Washington must catch up with high-tech usage already underway in the theater, according to a panel of former and current government officials.

Somewhere between rule making on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon, the deployment of smart phones and edge nodes on the ground in Afghanistan, and between the barriers dividing digital natives and digital immigrants, something has gotten lost in the translation.

Now, Washington must bring its policies up to the speed of technology to meet the critical needs of troops on the ground that are being driven by cloud capabilities, according to a panel of government officials and industry experts who spoke May 24 at the AFCEA C4I conference in Fairfax, Va.

“iPhone apps on the ground in Afghanistan just show that the traditional management practices and traditional acquisition are getting hammered by the transition to the cloud,” said Mark Forman, co-founder, Government Transaction Services Inc. and former administrator, Office of e-Government and IT, Office of Management and Budget. “Productivity is driven by groups assembled to solve problems…they need to be able to get information fast so they can decide fast, and that must be supported by IT.”

At the Defense Department, cloud capabilities are beginning to permeate the farthest reaches of downrange operations – it’s a much-needed capacity that is already making a difference, according to Annette Redmond, special adviser for Army Enterprise Intelligence and Security Command. Now, the acquisition policies and cycles must match.

“Cloud allows us to get enormous processing power at commodity rates,” Redmond said. “But the traditional business model doesn’t work [for our needs]. We’ve had to come up innovative ways for forward communications.”

A major barrier is DOD’s traditionalist approach to development, acquisition and deployment, the panel said.

“We tend to move toward one-size-fits-all policies, but commanders don’t do that,” said Richard Hale, chief information assurance executive, Defense Information Systems Agency. “It really complicates things.

Also complicating things is the unique and critical security requirements of defense operations. Hale said it’s key to understand the risks and the viability of information infrastructure, but still find ways to make it easier, safer and faster to share information with the right partners – and keep it away from those who shouldn’t have access.

It’s especially challenging in an environment like Afghanistan, where broad sharing with coalition partners must be conducted while still maintaining classified information, Hale added.

But progress is being made. Redmond pointed out that the National Institute of Standards and Technology is set to release a federal cloud computing roadmap by October, which is promising. She noted that troops are using Google’s application programming interface to build their own apps and widgets, which still require standard DOD accreditation for enterprise use. That accreditation is already under way, she added.

“We’re talking about fundamentally different ways to develop apps,” Redmond said.

Hale said that DOD is beginning to shift its use of cloud information-sharing, at least in coalition disaster response efforts, in which speed and partnership take priority over the traditional, formal, high-level security model.

“In crisis response, we’re taking risks so we can information with all partners,” Hale said.

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