U.S. defense agencies' cloud transition yields better intelligence

A cloud migration seems daunting but the effort is worthwhile; U.S. defense agencies say their cloud move led to better military intelligence.

BOSTON -- Making the transition from on-premises data centers to the public cloud brings up a number of concerns, but the major change in the way computing is done may be the biggest hurdle for IT.

As the U.S. defense agencies learned from their cloud transition projects, however, the rewards far outweigh the risks.

The agencies were led to cloud computing via budget constraints: Government IT needed ways to save money while remaining efficient. The road to the cloud has not been a smooth one.

Cloud computing was a big change that took some time getting used to for the U.S. Army, which has more than 750 servers in its data centers, each uniquely configured to run differently, said George Callaghan, CEO of BizHelper, a Herndon, Va.-based IT strategies firm specializing in U.S. government agencies.

"We know how to go to war; we know how to build weapons. But we don't know how to [build] our IT," he said during a session at the Red Hat Summit here this week.

We've gone from a very long, phased, deliberate planning cycle to a rapid turn of weaponry and intelligence.

John Barrette,
former program manager, Air Force's Air Operations Center Modernization

Agencies also faced challenges during the cloud transition that ranged from overcoming higher-ups' doubt that the cloud could provide an adequate amount of security to ensuring that lifecycle costs are provided, rather than just settling on a one- or two-year forecast.

"Within the government, it was challenging," said John Barrette, senior acquisition specialist at Odyssey Systems Consulting Group in Wakefield, Mass., and former program manager for the U.S. Air Force's Air Operations Center Modernization. "We showed them a business case for why we wanted to leverage [cloud]."

Explaining the benefits of cloud computing is easier said than done, according to BizHelper's Callaghan.

"We've hand-carved our IT for a long time. Teaching the cloud is more than technology -- it's about the business," he said. "Senior leaders are understanding now, which is a huge difference from a few years ago."

While training an employee on a new technology is time-consuming, that's not necessarily the problem.

"A lot of times in operational centers, you have employees who get smart on a technology, they get certified, and then they leave the service," Odyssey Systems' Barrette said. "When you propose to move from technology A to B, the [decision makers] aren't so much as worried about retraining their people, but once we retrain them, they'll leave in three months."

In fact, the U.S. Marine Corps was so concerned about employees leaving that it added two years to the minimum enlistment time for their IT pros.

Lack of communication among different government agencies also makes it harder to maintain consistency across multiple clouds.

"We're moving to the cloud, but every agency is doing something a little differently," Barrette said. "The Army is doing one thing; the Air Force and Navy are doing another. We have different clouds, so we're trying to do things smartly."

Cloud computing's positive impact

Once they got past the issues, cloud computing and integrated systems improved capabilities in a number of ways for defense agencies, including better information correlation, compute capacity on demand, and more control over acquisitions and logistics.

For example, Barrette modernized the Air Force Operations Center to help with more precise targeting.

"Time-sensitive targeting -- we've gone from a very long, phased, deliberate planning cycle to a rapid turn of weaponry and intelligence, and [we can] now identify and knock out quickly," he said.

In turn, soldiers are more prepared than ever because technology provides better intelligence.

"Fighters have more information now than they've ever had," said Ted Brunnell, architect at Red Hat Inc. "Looking at the wars fought now versus Desert Storm is like night and day."

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