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Recent DISA and CIA Procurements Illustrate Big Data Fueled Drive to Cloud

Published: June 26, 2013

Big DataCloud ComputingContract AwardsDEFENSEDISAIntelligence

Recent events surrounding DISA’s canceled Large Data Object Storage contract and the CIA’s protested Commercial Cloud Services (C2S) award to Amazon Web Services show that the DoD and IC have great interest in commercial cloud infrastructure. The challenge of big data is pushing these communities toward cloud computing as the only viable solution. Vendors should therefore plan accordingly and take advantage of this because it is coming to the rest of the federal government in a big way.

The federal cloud computing market has seen some interesting activity in the last few months.  First, in April and May the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) awarded and then canceled a $49 million sole source contract for Large Data Object Storage (LDOS).  Then, just a few weeks ago the Government Accountability Office (GAO) sustained IBM’s protest of the CIA’s award of a $600 million Commercial Cloud Services (C2S) contract to Amazon Web Services.  There have been other developments as well, like the award of the first task order off of the Department of the Interior’s Foundation Cloud Hosting Services contract.  This was a doozy, not because the award to Unisys was for a $44 million, but because it was for the migration of a major financial management system to a cloud-based Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) framework.  Agencies have struggled for years to implement costly, complicated ERPs.  The DOI’s choice to use a cloud-based system could be a game changer in the years to come as more agencies follow suit.  For the time being, however, let’s focus on the DISA and CIA contract dramas and what they suggest about emerging trends in federal cloud computing.

The Defense and Intelligence Communities are moving closer together

Readers may have noticed that DISA’s LDOS and the CIA’s C2S (non) awards have some interesting similarities, starting with the fact that both contracts were for infrastructure.  DISA awarded the LDOS effort to provide storage for the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) cloud that the agency is building.  As DISA made clear in its public announcements about LDOS, it possesses neither the bandwidth nor the funding required to build the storage infrastructure it needs.  Emerging details on the C2S contract similarly show that the CIA awarded C2S to Amazon Web Services to provide a contractor-owned, contractor operated cloud infrastructure for the Intelligence Community, including massive amounts of storage. 

According to the GAO’s recent decision upholding IBM’s protest, the IC intended to provide its own analytical capabilities for use on the vendor provided infrastructure.  This sounds similar to the LDOS award.  Both DISA and the CIA/IC sought to purchase commercially provided infrastructure to host the massive amounts of data they are collecting and both organizations intended to use their own analytical capabilities. 

What is this telling us?

First, it is becoming clear that the Defense and Intelligence communities intend to cope jointly with the tsunami of surveillance data they are collecting.  These communities have common interests that appear to be leading them to adopt a common approach.  This approach entails leveraging computing and storage infrastructure provided by a commercial partner, or partners, while saving precious procurement dollars to acquire the latest analytics.

Second, the challenge of big data is driving the DoD and IC toward cloud-based solutions.  As I and others have explained, big data is not a market, it is a challenge and the DoD and IC have decided that cloud computing is the right solution.  Arguably the analytics required to glean actionable insight from massive data sets are the piece of the solution that can be most readily called “big data.”  The other resources needed include good old storage infrastructure, scalable computing power, and transport bandwidth.  Big data and cloud computing are in essence becoming inseparable in the eyes of the DoD and IC and these twin forces are pushing investment in storage, computing, and transport infrastructure.

Lastly, the fact that dealing with big data is an infrastructure-intensive undertaking means that financially strapped agencies are turning to cloud service providers out of necessity.  If neither DISA nor the IC can afford the infrastructure and computing resources needed to handle the big data challenge then how are smaller civilian agencies supposed to do it?  Cloud-based solutions are the only answer at this point in time.

These then are some of the lessons to be learned from the recent events surrounding LDOS and C2S.  The DoD and IC have already reached the conclusion that buying commercial cloud infrastructure is the way to go.  Vendors need only plan accordingly to take advantage of this because it is coming to the rest of the federal government in a big way.