Two enlisted troops at the Naval Aviation Forecast Center update weather forecasts for Navy flight operations.

Two enlisted troops at the Naval Aviation Forecast Center update weather forecasts for Navy flight operations. Navy Media Content Services by Petty Officer 1st Class Joshua Wahl

The Pentagon's Adoption of Cloud Technology Is Finally Taking Off

As the Pentagon transitions to use more cloud-based services, its systems still have a long way to go in improving how they collect, distribute and share information.

Rarely has the Defense Department dedicated the kind of time and resources to talking emerging technologies as it did Jan. 29 at an industry-day event, parading a who’s-who of top tech officials to explain the Pentagon’s plans for cloud computing.

Held at the Commerce Department headquarters, the event served two purposes. The first was to explain how DOD has advanced its cloud strategy. That explainer alone was enough to retain a standing-room-only auditorium for eight hours – a mind-boggling feat considering no lunch was served and networking opportunities were limited.

The second goal for DOD and Defense Information Systems Agency officials appeared to be the outlining of the Pentagon’s vision for making use of emerging technologies in the near future.

Behold the Data Distribution Center

DOD Chief Information Officer Terry Halvorsen says he hates the term “data center,” or at least the connotation people get when they hear the term – that is, of a siloed set of servers somewhere that don’t share information as well as they seal it away.

As the Pentagon transitions to use more cloud-based services – either from commercial providers or internal efforts such as its milCloud service – Halvorsen stated systems would have to improve how they collect, distribute and share information collectively. Optimal data distribution requires a common infrastructure, sensors and data exchange, and it’s not a problem limited to the Pentagon’s internal operations.

“There’s a responsibility on the industry side, too,” Halvorsen said. “Industry has to figure out how it will share data with other industry partners. There won’t be one single cloud environment. The only way for it to work is if we share common data.”

DOD already collects a huge amount of information from sensors, open-data sets and myriad other entities, but making maximum use of those growing data sets in the coming decade simply won’t be possible under DOD’s current data center-focused approach.

DISA Chief Technology Officer Dave Mihelcic used the industry day to echo similar comments he’s made recently about DOD’s need tostrategize for the future.

MilCloud ‘Not Getting a Free Pass’

MilCloud is DISA’s internal answer to commercial cloud providers, offering a cloud-services portfolio to DOD customers. Milcloud was initially deployed for sensitive, unclassified information on the NIPRnet and later configured for the SIPRNet, too. It’s oft-criticized for poor performance and high costs – commercial cloud services executives are especially critical of milCloud, deeming it inferior in performance and security to their offerings.

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Alan Lynn, vice director at DISA, used the industry day stage to defend milCloud, noting its costs have come down and customer engagement has improved via the creation of a customer engagement center. 

MilCloud has been deployed in two Defense Enterprise Computing Centers – in Montgomery, Alabama, and Oklahoma City. Lessons have been learned along the way, he said, and DISA is modifying processes to address customer feedback to develop additional features for milCloud.

“The discussion is more on how much do we want to push out to commercial industry and how much can you drive costs down,” Lynn said. “If you can drive cost down, we’re interested. Bring us your best offers.”

But is milCloud’s rate competitive with industry? Without exact numbers, it’s tough to tell – alas, a cost comparison was not displayed among the gratuitous number of PowerPoint slides presented that day – but Halvorsen did indicate that milCloud still has significant room to improve.

“MilCloud’s rate has decreased, but not low enough,” Halvorsen said, noting that milCloud is “not getting a free pass.“

“[Lynn] and the team are continuing to look hard at how to drop those costs,” Halvorsen added.

Halvorsen noted there are “things in milCloud,” which, because “times have changed,” could potentially migrate to commercial cloud. His statements indicates that commercial cloud providers are beginning to meet increased security requirements in the cloud, with various pilot programs – dominated by Amazon Web Services – already handling sensitive DOD workloads.

Yet, he defended milCloud as an important tool in storing or processing data, which “for all kinds of risk reasons, we want to keep inside government” to mitigate, financial, technical and political risks.

A Hint of Future Partnerships?

It’s not reality yet, but Halvorsen alluded to the possibility of a “contracted data distribution center,” in which a vendor provides hot-ticket items, such as on-demand cloud services while the military provides physical security.

As a joke, Halvorsen added that most private security companies “can’t roll tanks up to provide security” to a commercial data center, indicating the lengths at which DOD would go to ensure its data centers – at least physically – are nearly impenetrable.

“Why couldn’t we put what amounts to be a commercial data distribution center on government property in government buildings?” Halvorsen said. “I’m waiting for that proposal with all the costs associated with it. Maybe it becomes the first federal cloud computing center? There are a growing number of customers who want the same level of protection.”

When asked by reporters what industries might want to partner up to store highly sensitive data on a managed DOD premises, Halvorsen replied “financial institutions,” but added that such developments are not close to be carried out yet.

“We are not there yet, but that’s what we’re looking for,” he said.

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