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Top Intelligence Official: Moving to the Cloud ‘One of Best Decisions We Made’

Cloud computing is changing the way U.S. spy agencies meet their missions.

Sue Gordon, the principal deputy director of national intelligence, said the intelligence community’s $600 million bet on cloud computing in 2013 has more than paid off.

Speaking Tuesday in Washington at the Amazon Web Services Public Sector Summit, Gordon said the decision to turn to a commercial cloud vendor to host an assortment of classified, sensitive data for intelligence agencies for analysis and other purposes was to “hedge our bets against” against a world of big data.

Gordon said the 17 agencies that comprise the intelligence community have kept pace with that world and singled out cloud computing as “one of the best decisions we made.” Gordon said the C2S environment has improved the efficiency of intelligence analysts that sift through mountains of data, ultimately leading to better data for decision- and policy-makers. In addition, Gordon said it was more secure from outside attackers than the intelligence community’s traditional legacy systems.

However, the move came with growing pains and lessons learned.

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Gordon said at first intelligence agencies had to learn how to access the cloud once it got off the ground. Moving data to the cloud environment also proved challenging, and some agencies learned the hard way that some legacy applications are better left alone. The biggest challenge, Gordon said, was getting organizational commitment to use actually use the cloud, which meant analysts and mission owners would have to perform their duties differently.

“It’s not just about the IT, but what you could do with it,” Gordon said. “Without organizational commitment, we wouldn’t put pressure on it. Organizational commitment makes you have to achieve.”

After about three years, agencies and mission owners got the hang of it.

“We’re faster. We can take on much more complex problems than we did before,” Gordon said.

“We are multidisciplinary and multiorganizational, allowed to have the same foundation. The journey we started on data, we’ve actually figured out when you have to understand how to use the data and understand not how you put data in but how you move it through applications.”

Gordon’s remarks come as the CIA—which took the lead on the 2013 cloud contract—is in the early stages of planning another cloud contract that could dwarf its initial effort.

In late March, CIA contracting documents released to select tech companies and shared with Nextgov state the agency is in the early stages of planning a contract for commercial cloud services that will be worth “tens of billions” of dollars. While C2S is entirely operated by AWS, the CIA expects to “acquire foundational cloud services” from multiple vendors through the new contract, C2E.

Gordon did not mention the secretive C2E effort by name, but she alluded to the intelligence community’s growing appetite for cloud computing and national security ramifications at play with the increasing democratization of technologies like cloud.

“Sitting in 2019, the biggest new demand on ourselves is what are we going to do using all that data,” Gordon said, suggesting how automation and artificial intelligence technologies built off the cloud could further improve intelligence products.

“In a world of ubiquitous tech available to everyone, the one who can put it to use faster will win,” Gordon added. “Just when we thought we had data foundation and security thing right, we’re going to have to rethink it as we have before. I think there is great room for us to explore.”